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25th Aug 2022

Almost half of all tattoo inks contain chemical that could cause cancer, study finds

Kieran Galpin

Some inks can degenerate into cancerous compounds

A new study has revealed that nearly half of all tattoo ink contains chemicals that can cause cancer and trigger cancerous mutations.

On Wednesday, John Swierk, assistant professor of inorganic chemistry at Binghamton University, presented his findings at the American Chemical Society in Chicago, Illinois.

Researchers found that tattoo ink is typically made with two elements, pigment and carrier fluids. Of the 56 samples presented to the Chemical Society, 23 pigments contained azo-compounds, and one even contained ethanol which thins the blood.

Azo-compounds are usually pretty safe, but they can degenerate if exposed to bacteria in the skin or too much ultraviolet light. Too much sunlight, and the compounds can turn carcinogenic.


“We don’t necessarily know what the pigments break down into and so that’s the real concern,” Swierk told the Mail Online.

“It’s possible that you might have pigments that by themselves are safe, but that photodecompose into something of concern.”

The study also revealed that the size of ink particles could also be cause for concern. In 16 different inks, including the standard black, particles were below nanometers. This is “concerning” as the particles could “get through the cell membrane and potentially cause harm” by triggering cancerous mutations.

“When you get down to that size regime you start to have concerns about nanoparticles penetrating cells, getting into the nucleus of cells, and doing damage and causing problems like cancer that way,” Swierk explained.

“Big companies manufacture pigments for everything, such as paint and textiles. These same pigments are used in tattoo inks.”

The researchers are now hoping to build a comprehensive database of tattoo ink ingredients.

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