Hidden dangers of tattoos

When I would go to the beach as a young lad in the 1960s, we’d see the occasional man with a moderately modest tattoo on his arm, or rarely, on his chest. Often it was simply an image of an anchor tattooed on the arm, like in the Popeye cartoons, signifying service in the U.S. Navy or the Merchant Marines.

Since my dad served in the U.S. Navy at the end of WW II, I asked why my father didn’t have a tattoo. He explained that it wasn’t a proper thing to have done. Nor did one want to find oneself in the kinds of locations where they were done.

Later, as a Medical Examiner in the 1980s, I took a forensic interest in the tattoos on the bodies of dead criminals because they could provide clues as to what gangs the deceased had belonged and what kinds of crimes the criminal had committed. This information could be useful in a homicide investigation, to put away even more criminals. The whole business was distinctly unsavory, if grimly fascinating.

By the very late 20th century, tattoos began to leave the shadows, so to speak. Today, they are downright mainstream, particularly among young people. And as the popularity of tattoos continues to grow, so does the concern about potential risks.

Of course, government regulations should ensure tattoo artists follow hygienic procedures so as not to spread infection. But there is very little real oversight. And dirty needles can pass infections, like hepatitis and HIV, from one person to another.

Plus, infections can come from any number of places at the tattoo parlor…not just the tattoo needle. In fact, in 2012, public health officials in New York received at least 14 reports of non-tuberculous mycobacterial (NTM) skin infections in people exposed to contaminated water used to dilute tattoo ink.

Secondly, we don’t know much about the potential toxicological risks of getting a tattoo. We lack the good data on the bio-kinetics and toxicity of the chemical pigments used in tattoos.

What exactly goes into the ink they inject into skin?

Concentrated tattoo inks often come from products never intended for tattoos. For example, tattoo parlors can use a product made with calligraphy ink, drawing ink, or even printer ink. The ink manufacturers often sell their products online. And while their states may require them to hold a business license, the government doesn’t regulate or oversee the product itself.

Ironically, most of the same hip folks who think tattoos are trendy would never knowingly ingest a chemical substance or even come in contact with one on top of their skin. Yet they willingly and permanently etch these chemical pigments under their skin. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

We also need increased knowledge about the safe and effective removal of these pigments (for when the patient wakes up years later to the implications of the disfiguration…or perhaps just the morning after with a hangover).

Some dermatologists express concern about the potential of tattoos to cause photo-toxicity. In other words, the pigments may adversely interact with sunlight, or cause reactions in the skin when exposed to the sun. Of course, you could cover up your tattoo to avoid this problem when in the sun. But the science shows people need to expose more skin, more often, to get all the benefits of sunlight exposure.

Third, we don’t know enough about the possible migration of pigments from the skin into the body, where they may eventually contribute to organ failure. Some evidence suggests when the body tries to get rid of these foreign chemicals, it produces toxic byproducts. The body can also form granulomas — small knots or bumps of scar tissue — around material it perceives as foreign, such as particles of tattoo pigment.

As an anthropologist, I know humans have used tattoos to convey socially significant symbolism for thousands of years. But until the last hundred years or so, people only used natural substances — not chemical pigments — in these tattoos. And they used stones, not needles. Furthermore, these artistic, decorative tattoos often faded or disappeared naturally after their moment of glory — like henna art, which is widely available today for those so inclined.

When confronting the tattoo needle today, you really need to ask your children and grandchildren, “What’s the point?” When it comes to the hazards of this primitive, potentially dangerous practice, color me concerned.


  1. “A medical toxicological view of tattooing,” Lancet 2016 Jan 23; 387(10016):395-402
  1. The Hidden Dangers of Getting Inked Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) 8/22/2012