The not-so-hidden dangers of tattoos

Tattoos hit the mainstream about two decades ago in North America and Europe.

And today, about 36 percent of people ages 18 to 25 and 40 percent ages 26 to 40 years have tattoos — adding up to 24 percent of the entire population.

The stigma associated with tattoos may have diminished, but the dangers associated with them certainly haven’t, as I’ll explain in a moment…

When I was young, I became interested in tattoos after reading Ray Bradbury’s anthology, “The Illustrated Man.” Of course, Groucho Marx’s solo about “Lydia the tattooed lady,” was good for laughs. I was fascinated to see the occasional man on the beaches in Europe and the U.S. with a tattoo of an anchor on his arm, and once, a battleship on his chest.

My parents explained that these men must have been in the Navy. My father (in the U.S.) and maternal grandfather (in France) served in the Navy in WWII and WWI, respectively. I asked why they didn’t have tattoos too?

My grandmother told me it just wasn’t done chez les gens commes-il-faut, which roughly translates as “by people who are the way they should be.”

It simply wasn’t chez les gens propre, or done by people who are proper, or more literally, clean. It really didn’t look clean, and the places where sailors got tattoos didn’t look clean either. I just left it as something that simply wasn’t done.

Later, as a Medical Examiner working in forensic pathology, I learned about tattoos because they provide information on the past history and activities (mainly criminal) on bodies that were victims of homicides. They often helped the police track down the reasons these victims were murdered, and who might have done it.   Tattoo analysis is a forensic science like toxicology or ballistics.

Now, tattoos are wildly popular and mainstream — but they still aren’t “clean,” much less safe.

Heavy metal exposure never a good thing

Ironically, the federal FDA hasn’t approved any tattoo inks for injection. But state and local governments regulate tattoo parlors. And the FDA doesn’t require ink makers to release their ingredients. Apparently, releasing this important information would give away trade secrets. So we don’t actually know what’s being injected permanently into the skin. But we DO know the coloring agents in the ink can contain harmful chemicals like aldehydes, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), denatured alcohols, formaldehyde, and methanol.
We also know that tattoo inks often contain all kinds of heavy metal pigments, which end up permanently embedded in the skin.

For instance, red ink often contains mercury, which the government says doesn’t belong in our foods or landfills. (Of course, they look the other way when it comes to mercury in dental amalgams or fillings. It also mandates the use of faulty, “long-lasting” light bulbs that contain mercury. But you can’t dispose of these “long-lasting” bulbs in landfills when they do burn out.)

Plus, many of these inks are industrial grade, manufactured for automobile paint or printers’ ink. Piercing the skin with these toxic inks can cause allergic reactions, infections, keloids (discolored, raised, permanent scar formations), and potential complications when getting imaging studies like MRIs.

There are also reports of malignant melanoma skin cancer arising in the sites of tattoos. So — some of the chemicals in tattoos may be carcinogens.

In terms of infections, commercial tattoos are a leading cause of hepatitis C. One study found that tattoos accounted for twice as many hep C infections as did the injection of illegal drugs. No wonder we now have an epidemic of hepatitis C — and a whole new class of drugs to treat it.

Even if somehow one likes the look of tattoos, there is nothing “attractive” about all the medical costs and complications associated with getting them. Plus, they’ve spawned another expensive cosmetic surgery cottage industry for tattoo removal.

When I studied medical anthropology, we looked at traditional cultural practices of getting tattoos, using natural plant pigments, and pigments from other natural sources. We learned that such practices were part of “primitive” societies’ culture to express life events, life passages, or social status. Our own society seems to be moving backwards now in many ways, going back to “primitive” behaviors that have many adverse health consequences — tattoos included.


“Commercial tattooing as a potentially important source of hepatitis C infection. Clinical epidemiology of 626 consecutive patients unaware of their hepatitis C serologic status,” Medicine March 2000;80: 134-151