The Trouble With Tattoos | Stories | PerkinElmer
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The Trouble With Tattoos

October 21, 2016


A Colorful Background

A recent Harris Poll survey found that one in three Americans has at least one tattoo, and nearly 70% of those folks have multiple tattoos. 1 It may also come as a surprise to learn that more American women have “tats” than men. “From tiny birds, stars, hearts, and script designs” the new line of tattoos “is being marketed for its feminine attributes of being dainty and pretty,” says Beth Greenfield of Yahoo News. 2

Add in another 60 million people who sport tattoos in the EU, and the countless millions getting inked in Asia in a show of personal identity or to mark a life experience, and you get the picture. 3 Tattoos have gone mainstream. From movie stars and sports royalty to us common folk, tattoos are everywhere… literally. Thanks to new technologies, more vivid inks, and highly sophisticated designs that would turn Popeye green with envy, the art of tattooing is now a $3 billion industry in the U.S. alone. 4

A Darker Side To Tattoos

Like any story, however there is a “B” side to the rise of the tattoo industry, and in some cases, it is B as in bad. According to a recent study by The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), substances found in some tattoo inks are potentially toxic: “Many reports show concerns for public health stemming from the composition of inks used for tattooing,” the ECHA study says. “The most severe concerns are allergies caused by the substances in the inks and possible carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reproductive toxic effects.” 5

What exactly are these substances? According to Natural News, an alarming number of tattoo inks include dangerous levels of phthalates, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. “Black tattoo inks are often made from soot-containing products of combustion called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),” Nature News reports, adding that they are “among the most potent and well-documented skin carcinogens.” 6 Phthalates found in the inks, meanwhile, are suspected of causing liver, kidney, and lung damage, and, heavy metals–including lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, and arsenic–are all known to cause severe organ damage, including cancer. 7

Largely Unregulated Industry

Despite the rapid growth of the tattoo industry, and in many ways because of it, safety monitoring has become increasing more difficult. In the EU, for instance, tattoo inks are regulated by each member state, but few consider it a priority. One country that does is Switzerland. Even there, researchers recently found that 37% of tattoo inks tested do not comply with safety standards. According to the findings, the popularity of tattoos has only heightened the use of newer dyes and pigments that have likely never undergone a safety test. Those findings coincide with a recent increase in the number of adverse reactions being found in both the short and long term. 8, 9

In the U.S., the situation is also convoluted. The Food and Drug Administration classifies tattoo ink as a cosmetic that does not require pre-market review. Tattoo parlors are licensed by the states, and the FDA admits that it has not prioritized enforcement of regulations related to tattoo inks. 10 That may soon be changing. 11

Finding Toxic Metals In Tattoo Ink

Academic and regulatory agencies around the globe are now launching studies into the safety of tattoo inks. Because many of these inks are derived from inorganic sources containing metals and metal nanoparticles, PerkinElmer’s NexION® ICP-MS instrument is ideally suited to the task.

A case in point is Dr. Beatrice Bocca of the Italian Ministry for Health, who is among the first scientists to study tattoo inks in detail. In conjunction with other instrumentation, Bocca used the NexION ICP-MS in single-particle mode to detect a virtual periodic table of nanoparticle compounds in tattoo inks. These included chromium, lead, mercury, cadmium, barium, titanium, and salt, to name just a few of the toxins. 12

Of particular interest to Bocca is what she also found in so-called organically derived tattoo inks. “Inks using non-metal colorants can include traces of toxic metals, because they are naturally found in the environment and they can be present in raw materials and/or because they are residues deriving from the ink production process,” she said. 13

Bocca was especially impressed with the PerkinElmer NexION ICP-MS’s ability to determine particle size and metal composition of inks even at trace concentration levels.

“The finding of metal nanoparticles in tattoo inks is particularly important in contributing to the uncertainty in terms of which organs in the body (in addition to the skin and the lymph nodes that drain the tattooed area) can be exposed to metal nanoparticles,” Bocca said. “This is because particles with a particle size of < 100 nm can distribute themselves differently in the body than soluble substances and larger particles.”

Subsequent research by Bocca’s team and others continue to leverage PerkinElmer’s NexION ICP-MS and its ability to simultaneously discover and analyze heavy metals in inks, even in trace amounts.  Another team is using PerkinElmer’s VictorTM 2 Microplate Reader to help measure the fluorescence in black tattoo inks to uncover higher-than-allowable levels of cancer-causing PAHs. 14 While exposing harmful ingredients and adulterants in tattoo inks is the immediate objective, the use of PerkinElmer’s state-of-the-art instrumentation is a clear example of how the company is innovating for a healthier world.

For research use only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.


  1. Anon., “Tattoo Takeover: Three in Ten Americans Have Tattoos, and Most Don’t Stop at Just One,“ The Harris Poll, February 16, 2016, accessed October 4. 2016.
  2. Beth Greenfield, “Ladylike Tattoos: Are They A Thing,” Yahoo News, February 28, 2013, accessed October 3, 2016.
  3. Joint Research Center, “Safety Of Tattoos And Permanent Make-Up: Final Report,” European Commission's Science And Knowledge Service, 2016, accessed October 4, 2016. See also, Lu-Hai Lisang, “Good Girls, Not Gangsters? Tattoos No Nonger Taboo In China,” CNNStyle, August 24, 2015, accessed October 4, 2016.
  4. Rhett Power, “Momentary Ink Plans to Disrupt Tattoo Industry,” INCMagazine, October 27, 2015, accessed October 3, 2016.
  5. George Harrison, “Shock Research Has Warned That Tattoo Ink Can Cause Cancer, With One Colour More Dangerous Than The Others,” The Sun, July 24, 2016, accessed October 3, 2016.
  6. Tony Isaacs, “Bad News for Tattoos - Many Tattoo Inks Contain Dangerous Heavy Metals, Phthalates and Hydrocarbons,” Natural News, January 21, 2014, accessed October 4, 2016. See also, Trine Høgsberg, Nicklas Raun Jacobsen, Per Axel Clausen, Jørgen Serup, “Black Tattoo Inks Induce Reactive Oxygen Species Production Correlating With Aggregation Of Pigment Nanoparticles And Product Brand But Not With The Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Content,” Experimental Dermatology, Vol. 22, pp. 464–469, May, 2013, DOI: 10.1111/exd.12178, accessed October 4, 2016.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Peter Laux, et al., “A Medical-Toxicological View Of Tattooing,” The Lancet, Vol. 387, January 23, 2016, pp.395 – 402.
  9. Bhakti Petigara Harp, “Tattoos And Permanent Makeup,” Powerpoint Presentation, U.S. Food & Drug Administration, March 15, 2011, accessed October 4, 2016.
  10. FOXNEWS Health, “Tattoo Ink May Be Toxic, Study Suggests,”, July 26, 2016, accessed October 3, 2016.
  11. Peter Laux. et al., op. cit.
  12. Brett Israel, “Inkling of Tattoos Face Scrutiny,” Environmental Health News, August 11, 2011, accessed October 4, 2016.
  13. Beatrice Bocca, “Heavy Metals In Tattoo Inks,” PowerPoint Presentation, Symposium First International Conference on Tattoo Safety, Berlin, June 6–7, 2013, accessed October 4, 2016.
  14. Ibid.

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