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Some Concerns With Large Tattoos

The following was written by Dr. Desmond Tobin, Prof. of Cell Biology and Director of Skin Sciences at Univ. of Bradford, UK about new emerging health concerns about tattoos.

From The Conversation: Trend for larger tattoos masks a deeper problem of toxins and skin

While the potential dangers of too much sun on the skin are well known, what about the new skin fashion-du-jour – tattoosIt’s fair to say there has been a veritable explosion in tattooing in the West over the past 20 years. As  much as 10% of the general population is now tattooed, rising to almost one in four young adults, mostly driven by an apparent urge for subgroup identity/branding or aesthetics. 

Tattooing may seem like just a piece of skin art, but it involves the deep injection of potentially toxic chemicals into the skinAnd as larger swathes of the body are covered, what might be the unintended consequences of this? While some design choices could do with regulation, the only regulated tattoo-associated activity is infection control, in other words cleanliness.

Tattoo needles pierce through the epidermis, the skin’s top layer, (sometimes to depths as much as 2mm) and into the dermis below to deliver their inks. There is no doubt that certain ink constituents can be toxic (as a 2012 survey for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found) and some ink manufacturers have acknowledged that some tattoo studios use inks containing carcinogenic compounds. These are being injected directly into the skin.

We’ve also been studying how our skin relates to ink pigments and their associated chemicals. With colleagues Colin Grant and Pete Twigg, specialists in the use of atomic force microscopes (AFM) and tissue mechanics, we’ve been taking a closer look at tattoos, and the greater reaction of these pigments in nano-particle form. In particular we and others are concerned that ink nano-particles, which we know can leave the skin over time (most likely via the skin’s dense network of blood and lymphatic vessels) end up in other organs of the body.

In the laboratory we’ve submitted research that shows that exposure of fibroblasts (the cells that make collagen in skin) with tattoo ink (even when highly diluted) significantly reduces their viability. Collagen is the body’s main connective tissue, and nano-particles of tattoo (50-150nm diameter) can become embedded in the collagenous network of the dermis. Later the ink particles appear around blood vessels.

There is much to learn about this subject. We’re only just beginning to look at the potential medical complications of tattooing including infections, carcinogenic properties, the potential for ink to cause mutations and allergies, and there is already emerging concern that tattoo ink-associated chemicals can be rendered more unstable by attempts to remove them, especially by lasers.