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New study says that nanoparticles from tattoo inks travel inside the body. They can accumulate in lymph nodes and may cause cancer.

Lymph nodes are crucial for our immune system. They act as filters for foreign particles and cancer cells. When swollen, inflamed or enlarged, lymph nodes cannot function properly. They are no longer strong enough to fight off infections. It can lead to various diseases which may range from trivial sore throat to life-threatening cancers.

The study was conducted by scientists in Grenoble together with their colleagues from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin. They identified particles in the skin and the lymph nodes, which are located in the neck, under the arms and along the crease between the thighs and the abdomen.

In the article’s abstract (published in “Nature” on September 12, 2017) it is said:

The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body. We used skin and lymphatic tissues from human corpses to address local biokinetics by means of synchrotron X-ray fluorescence (XRF) techniques at both the micro (μ) and nano (ν) scale. … Altogether we report strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments as well as for conformational alterations of biomolecules that likely contribute to cutaneous inflammation and other adversities upon tattooing.”

Co-study author Hiram Castillo said in a statement:

“When someone wants to get a tattoo, they are often very careful in choosing a parlor where they use sterile needles that haven´t been used previously. No one checks the chemical composition of the colors, but our study shows that maybe they should.”

[vc_custom_heading text=”What are tattoo ink ingredients?” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]

Tattoo ink is generally permanent because it has been made not to fade over time.

Usually, tattoo artists buy inks. Manufacturers are not required to reveal their ingredients, meaning that neither your tattoo artist no you may not know what exactly the ink contains. Often, tattoo inks contain titanium dioxide, lead, chromium, nickel, iron oxides, ash, metal salts, plastics, carbon black, and other ingredients. Tattoo ink producers typically blend the heavy metal pigments and/or use lightening agents (such as lead or titanium) to reduce production costs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and medical practitioners have noted that many ink pigments used in tattoos are industrial strength colours suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.

Some tattoo artists use their own recipes by mixing dry pigment and a carrier. Tattoo inks may be made from pen ink, soot, dirt, blood, or other imaginable and unimaginable ingredients.

No matter whether the ink is “homemade” or “professional”, you use it at your own risk.

Let’s consider what chemical compounds are usually found in tattoo inks:

Heavy metals:

Heavy metals have been extensively studied and known to cause cancer, birth defects and many other health problems. Heavy metals used for colours include mercury (red); lead (yellow, green, white); cadmium (red, orange, yellow); nickel (black); zinc (yellow, white); chromium (green); cobalt (blue); aluminum (green, violet); titanium (white); copper (blue, green); iron (brown, red, black); and barium (white). Metal oxides used include ferrocyanide and ferricyanide (yellow, red, green, blue).

Organic chemicals include:

  • Azo-chemicals are used for orange, brown, yellow, green, and violet. They have N=N group in their structure which is called an azo group. The name “azo” comes from azote, the French name for nitrogen.
  • Naphtha-derived chemicals are used for red. Mixtures labelled “naphtha” have been produced from natural gas condensates, petroleum distillates, and the distillation of coal tar and peat.
  • Carbon (soot or ash) is used for black.

Other elements used as pigments include antimony, arsenic, beryllium, calcium, lithium, selenium, and sulphur. Some of them have been proven harmful (more or less) to your health.

[vc_custom_heading text=”Regulations for tattoo ink use” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]

Theoretically, tattoo inks are subject to regulation as cosmetics and colour additives. However, practically, the regulation is not generally exercised. The study also highlights the need for strict regulation on the use of chemical compounds in tattoo inks.

Doctors have observed a variety of medical complications from tattoo pigments in the body. You have to assess health risks prior to acquiring your tattoos. Remember, your health is your responsibility. You can get a tattoo, but at your own risk.


  • Synchrotron-based ν-XRF mapping and μ-FTIR microscopy enable to look into the fate and effects of tattoo pigments in human skin:
  • Engel E, Santarelli F, Vasold R, et al. (2008). “Modern tattoos cause high concentrations of hazardous pigments in skin”. Contact Dermatitis. 58 (4): 228–33.
  • Tattoo Ink Chemistry:

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