Tattoo Ink Composition: What's in There?
Tattoos, tattoos everywhere, but what is in that ink? A conversation on this very topic prompted two NAU undergraduate chemistry majors to begin their own research into the chemical components of tattoo ink.
Leslie Wagner, 21, and Haley Finley-Jones, 21, both have tattoos and, noting their increase in popularity, found it interesting that most people are unaware the FDA does not regulate the tattoo process.
"I like working on science that affects all kinds of people and that they can get interested in," said Finley-Jones.
The two students received information from Burly Fish tattoo on which brands of ink are widely used and began their research by collecting 17 different samples of ink to test. All together they tested five blacks and three different whites, blues, reds and yellows from five manufacturers.
Wagner and Finley-Jones ran several tests to determine the composition of the inks and how they vary from color to color and from different manufacturers. They were also specifically testing for metals and found 14 total, including lead.
However, the students made it very clear that their tests were still preliminary and they were not doing toxicology tests. So while they did determine that lead was present in three to five of the inks, they could not say how much.
"We haven't done enough research yet to jump to any conclusions that the ink is harmful," said Finley-Jones.
However, because tattoo inks have not been approved by the FDA for injection under the skin, there is an inherent risk taken in the process.
According to the Coconino County Health Department, some inks can contain heavy metals such as arsenic, nickel and lead.
"No matter what, when you get a tattoo you are putting something relatively toxic into your system," said Siva, who works at Sacred Fire Tattoos in Sedona and has been a tattoo artist for seven years.
There are two types of ink that can be used for tattoos: organic and acrylic. With safety being his top priority, Siva is careful to explain the advantages and disadvantages of both to all his customers.
The difference is that in organic inks, the pigments are suspended in an organic carrier solution and acrylic inks are plastic based. The acrylic inks will have brighter, bolder colors but negative reactions can be unpredictable. Organic inks are usually much safer but can appear faded or washed-out.
Siva explained that anyone could have a reaction to either type of ink, but when the element of a plastic resin is added, there is a greater risk.
"Out of a thousand tattoos maybe one or two will have an organic reaction, but with acrylic ink it could be 12 or more," said Siva.
A short-term acrylic reaction can result in excessive swelling, pain, scabbing and prolonged healing. The long-term effect of plastic-based inks is not yet known because they have not been used for very long, though some evidence suggests there could be the possibility for skin mutations, explained Siva.
With the possibility of unknown negative reactions, some people feel the FDA should regulate tattoo inks for the safety of the public.
"All tattoo inks are potentially dangerous; regulations would level the playing field because the public would expect a certain quality," said Siva.
Both Wagner and Finley-Jones wouldn't hesitate to get more tattoos in the future, but said that regulating the manufacturing of inks could be beneficial.
"It couldn't hurt to know what is in it," said Wagner.
For now, the students hope that NAU and other sources will continue to fund their research. Wagner will be graduating in May, but Finley-Jones said she will be continuing with a compound analysis next year and wants to study the dry pigments.
"There is a lot of interest in the science community, so other people may take it even further," said Finley-Jones.
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