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Study Finds Hidden Tattoo Ingredients Have Major Health Risks—Including Organ Damage

Researchers investigated unlisted additives in over 50 tattoo inks.

Before getting a tattoo, you mentally prepare for a bit of discomfort during the process—not to mention some soreness after the fact, while the area heals. But after a week or so, you should be ready to show off your new ink, without giving much consideration to how it could affect your health. However, according to new research from Binghamton University in New York, you might want to give your next tattoo some extra thought, as unlisted ingredients in tattoo ink can actually pose health risks.

RELATED: New Research Discovers Hidden "Harmful" Ingredients in Tattoos.

The new study was published in Analytical Chemistry on Feb. 22, and produced by the lab of John Swierk, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry at Binghamton University. Researchers looked at 54 inks from nine common brands in the U.S., identifying several ingredients that weren't included on the label. In total, 45 inks (approximately 83 percent) "contained unlisted additives and/or pigments," according to the study.

One of the more concerning additives was poly(ethylene glycol), which was found in more than half of the inks. According to a press release outlining study findings, this additive can cause organ damage through repeated exposure. Fifteen of the 54 inks also contained the potential allergen propylene glycol; an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections; and 2-phenoxyethanol, which can pose health risks for nursing infants.

The study didn't determine whether the unlisted ingredients were intentionally added, or if manufacturers were provided with contaminated materials or incorrect labels. However, researchers hope the new data will shed light on safety moving forward.

"We're hoping the manufacturers take this as an opportunity to reevaluate their processes, and that artists and clients take this as an opportunity to push for better labeling and manufacturing," Swierk said in the press release.

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Because getting a tattoo breaks the skin, the process poses certain risks, the Mayo Clinic explains. First and foremost, the ink can cause an allergic reaction (the most common negative outcome, which can actually show up years later), while contaminated ink or equipment can lead to a skin infection.

Making things a bit more complicated, Swierk notes that, in general, "the research on the safety implications of tattoos is still out." Red pigment is specifically problematic, but science hasn't been able to identify why just yet.

State and local authorities oversee the practice of tattooing, but inks and pigments fall under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) jurisdiction. This is a recent development, as Congress passed the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA) in late 2022. Before that, inks were solely looked at as cosmetic, meaning they weren't subject to regulation, the press release states.

"The FDA is still figuring out what that is going to look like and we think this study will influence the discussions around MoCRA," Swierk said. "This is also the first study to explicitly look at inks sold in the United States and is probably the most comprehensive because it looks at the pigments, which nominally stay in the skin, and the carrier package, which is what the pigment is suspended in."

RELATED: 2 Teas Recalled for "Hidden Drug Ingredients," FDA Warns.

The study also solely looked at substances with higher concentrations—2,000 parts per million (ppm) or more. In Europe, where regulations are stricter, substances are looked at in lower concentrations, i.e. in the 2 ppm range. According to the press release, this means that there may be even more substances in the U.S. ink than researchers were able to identify.

"Our goal in a lot of this research is to empower artists and their clients," Swierk said in the release. "Tattoo artists are serious professionals who have dedicated their lives to this craft and they want the best possible outcomes for their clients. We're trying to highlight that there are some deficiencies in manufacturing and labeling."

Speaking with NewsweekSelina Medina, director of research at the Alliance of Professional Tattooists Association (APT), said the organization is "advising artists to be aware of the potential mislabeling of their tattoo ink products."

Medina continued, "Risks associated with improper labeling can result in an allergic reaction, particularly if there are unlisted ingredients." She also added that artists should familiarize themselves with FDA regulations and the American Food and Drug Officials Labeling Guide for Tattoo Inks and Permanent Makeups.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
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