Tattoos May Be More Harmful Than We Thought

Tattoos are ubiquitous in human history. In the Western world, their popularity has skyrocketed during the last century. What was once a practice exclusive to men has now become widespread in both sexes and all social strata. And despite some residual stigma still attached to those who engage in tattooing, the practice is now well accepted by society.

Tattoos have become one of the most popular trends among young adults. The purposes of the practice have also expanded: tattoos are currently used for cosmetic, functional, symbolic and even medical purposes.

Although generally considered safe if done by professionals, tattooing still carries a few health risks and possible complications. Tattoos are typically permanent because the inks used are very difficult and painful to remove. To make matters worse, it has now been discovered that potentially dangerous nanoparticles from these inks can infiltrate through the skin into the body, circulating to vital organs and posing unforeseen health risks to people.

The common side effects of tattoos include Itching, sore skin, redness and delayed healing process. But these issues tend to cause discomfort on a temporary basis as a rule. However, it is also known that tattoos can cause adverse reactions so strong that amputations may be necessary – such cases are exceedingly rare but still possible. What is not known so far is whether tattoos pose permanent, long-term health risks of any kind. The new study carried out by a team of European scientists suggests that might be the case. Using state-of-the-art nanoimaging technology at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), scientists observed that ink constituents in the form of nanoparticles managed to seep through skin tissue and travel inside the body.

Scientists highlight that while it was already known that ink pigments can reach the lymph nodes, the discovery that this happens at the nanoscale means that the real dimension of the health risks posed by tattoos is far from being understood.

Inks typically used by professionals are made of several substances. A few of those are potentially toxic. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles, in particular, can cross the skin and reach the lymph nodes. Scientists hypothesize that such a nanoleak might contribute to the chronic enlargement of lymph nodes in tattooed people. Biomolecular interactions (which have been associated with tattoo-induced inflammation) with the ink nanoparticles were also documented. Overall, the findings constitute evidence for a permanent and poorly understood influence of ink chemicals on the body’s physiology.

The discovery of a Ti02 nanoleak is also significant because this oxide is widely used in numerous industries to add a white pigmentation on food, toothpastes, sunscreens and many cosmetic products. The harm that tattoos can potentially cause may, therefore, be substantially higher than previously thought. The unforeseen health risks posed by ink nanoparticles are heavily debated, and this study suggests that the extent of the problem might already require immediate action.