You already know that getting a tattoo comes with risks. No, I’m not talking about getting fired from your job or getting yelled at by your mom. I mean you could end up with health problems like skin infections, allergic reactions, or blood-borne illnesses like hepatitis and HIV from dirty needles. But if you go to a licensed artist in a well-maintained shop, those risks are low.
Just recently, a university study found that tattoo ink pigment can also be hazardous to your health (1). They contain heavy metals and azo-containing dyes that are potentially carcinogenic. And that brings up the big question: Can tattoos cause cancer?
What are the chances of getting cancer from a tattoo?
I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated how likely a person is to get cancer from a tattoo. The answer would also depend on genetics, environmental pollution, and lifestyle choices. However, now there’s evidence that having a tattoo could increase the risk of getting cancer. Let’s talk about why.
Is tattoo ink toxic to the body?
Modern tattoo ink consists of a pigment for color and a carrier like water, alcohol, or witch hazel. It may also contain glycerin and other ingredients and contaminants.
You may remember that a few years ago there was a problem with bacteria in tattoo ink. That’s why reputable tattoo ink brands now sterilize the ink and ship it in sealed bottles.
Unfortunately, bacteria aren’t the only problem. Ink may also contain heavy metals that are carcinogenic. They may use azo dyes which were designed for painting cars and coloring plastics. Some have polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and those are carcinogenic, too (2).
If you have a tattoo removed, it doesn’t eliminate the problem. The pulsed laser treatment breaks down the pigment and further distributes the harmful particles throughout the body.
So yes, tattoo ink may be toxic to the body. It could cause anything from skin infections, scarring, and infectious diseases to cancer.
Can tattoos cause other health problems?
Did you know that having a tattoo might cause problems for you if you need an MRI? The metallic particles in some inks will cause the skin to burn. The particles may also deflect the radiation and cause errors in the imaging (3).
Covering up moles with tattoos might come back to bite you in the butt if you develop skin cancer. The ink may disguise telltale signs that would normally lead to early detection and a quick cure (3).
Now that you know that tattoo ink can cause cancer, are there any inks that are safe?
Take red ink, for example. If it contains the industrial pigment azo, it’s probably not good for you. An experiment on rats found that red azo dye was linked to liver cancer (4).
But black ink may be as dangerous or even more so. That’s because it usually contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) or benzopyrene which are carcinogens (4).
Then, in 2022, a university study sampled 56 types of tattoo inks used in the USA. Almost half contained azo compounds that become carcinogenic when exposed to bacteria or sunlight. These particles were so small they could enter cells and cause cancerous mutations. What color were the inks? Most were green or blue (5).
The study confirmed what the European Union scientists had discovered regarding blue and green pigments used in skincare products and cosmetics. The pigments were banned for use on or under the skin. Although the USA and the UK haven’t followed suit yet, changes are afoot (5).
There is a solution in the works. Since the European Union has mandated safer tattoo inks, big brands are scrambling to comply. Tattoo ink companies like Intenze are reformulating their products. In a moment, we’ll show you the result.
Can tattoos cause breast cancer?
The jury is out. Although ink may contain cancer-causing ingredients, there’s no clear-cut link between breast cancer and being tattooed.
Can tattoos cause blood cancer?
At the time of writing, there is no definitive link between getting a tattoo and developing blood cancer. Nevertheless, it can’t be healthy to have cancer-causing particles floating around in your bloodstream.
It’s downright disappointing to know that popular tattoo inks may contain arsenic, nickel, cadmium, and chromium. Yes, these metals are pigments. But unfortunately, they are class I carcinogens listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (6).
If you dig into OSHA regulations, you’ll find that there are hard limits on how much industrial workers can be exposed to these materials. So why are we letting people inject them under our skin?
Can tattoos cause lymphoma?
Getting tattooed might raise your risk of developing lymphoma because the tiny pigment particles may end up in your lymph nodes. Toxic metals like arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and chromium increase oxidative stress and damage DNA. They literally kill cells and cause them to mutate in harmful ways (6).
Can tattoos be removed?
Yes, tattoos can be removed, but getting rid of them doesn’t stop the cancer risk. The lead investigator on the study of tattoo inks published in 2022 got the idea while thinking about tattoo removal. He wanted to know what happens when lasers break down the pigments. That led to analyzing the contents of the ink and discovering all those harmful ingredients. (7)
The lab assistants took the study even further and interviewed tattoo artists. They wanted to know if the artist understood what was in the inks. What they found was disheartening. While artists could recognize the brands they preferred, they were clueless about how safe they were (7).
To complicate things, neither the FDA nor any other agency regulates tattoo ink ingredients. And there are no specific manufacturers making pigments for under the skin. Tattoo ink companies are choosing pigment from paint and textile dye makers (7).
On the bright side, the researchers created a website called “What’s in My Ink?” Little by little, they are adding data after they analyze the contents of popular tattoo inks. That way, anyone who wants to be informed beyond what a basic safety data sheet can provide can get the information (7).
Tattoo cancer symptoms
If you develop cancer, how would you know if it was linked to getting tattooed? Honestly, we aren’t sure unless pigment particles were found in the affected organ. It might be better to either avoid getting tattooed in the first place or make sure you use non-toxic ink.
If you live in the European Union, you’d already have some protection starting in 2022. The government has banned thousands of harmful chemicals that were formerly allowed in permanent makeup and tattoos. This includes shades of blue and green that have no replacements yet (7).
Although artists and collectors may be upset about the decision, it was the right choice. That’s because the most dangerous pigments decompose and turn into a substance that’s highly carcinogenic.
Also banned are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol, certain aromatic amines (also carcinogenic), some azodyes, and toxic metals. (Can you believe that this junk is in tattoo ink?) (8)
Can henna tattoos cause cancer?
Natural henna obtained from the flowering plant grown in Asia and Africa is safe for temporary tattoos. It lasts for a week or two on the skin People also use it to dye fabric and their hair.
Take note that henna dye in its natural state is a rusty brown color – it’s not black. If you come across temporary tattoo ink called “black henna”, it’s not safe. It contains PPD, a harmful chemical banned from cosmetics. You can get more information on the FDA website.
Does tattoo ink with organic pigment cause cancer?
If you’ve heard of organic tattoo ink, be skeptical. Check the MSDS or SDS sheet for details. Better yet, keep reading below.
Is there safe ink for tattoos?
At the moment, the safest tattoo ink you can buy meets the REACH regulations set by the European Union. Both European and American brands are busy developing products that meet this high standard. You may not find all of your favorite colors yet, but the selection is already pretty good.
Which tattoo ink brand is safest?
What is the least toxic tattoo ink? Well, don’t believe the hype. Some of the most beloved brands like Mom’s are guilty of selling tattoo inks with a frightening amount of carcinogens.
Take the Black Onyx color, for example. When analyzed with spectroscopy, it was found to contain cadmium, chromium, aluminum, mercury, lead, barium, antimony, strontium, vanadium, and nickel (9).
Then, Intenze’s True Black has cadmium, chromium, nickel, mercury, lead, and even more toxins floating in a soup of witch hazel, glycerin, water, and something labeled as “proprietary”.
But props to Intenze because they are one of the brands developing REACH-compliant inks. Quantum Tattoo Ink is another (10).
Check out the reviews below to find more tattoo inks without carcinogenic ingredients.
Kuro Sumi Imperial Japanese Tattoo Ink, Demon Black
Kuro Sumi has developed a selection of rich shades that meets REACH regulations for tattoo ink in the EU. Happily, it’s also sold in the USA.
How can you tell which Kuro Sumi colors are free of carcinogens? Look for the Imperial lineup. The label is different from the one on the traditional ink bottles.
Just like the original, the new formula is vegan and cruelty-free.
If you choose the color Demon Black, it’s designed for black fill work.
Azure Blue Viking by Dynamic
Of course, a best-selling brand like Dynamic wouldn’t let this opportunity slide. It created the Union Black tattoo ink that’s REACH-compliant and suitable for lining and filling.
Then, they have this gorgeous blue shade as part of the Viking color range. Just as Kuro Sumi has Imperial, The Viking is Dynamic’s non-toxic lineup. All the inks are cruelty-free and vegan. You can identify them by the holographic labels – it’s a big change from the generic black and white labels of the regular inks.
VIKING INK Tattoo Ink BLACK DYNAMITE
You guessed it, this is another REACH-compliant shade developed by Dynamic for the Viking Ink line. It’s a very intense, deep black that won’t go green or blue years down the road. Just look for the holographic label.
World Famous Tattoo Ink Limitless – Dark Blue 1
Look for the Limitless label on World Famous Tattoo Ink. It’s made in the USA to comply with European standards for non-toxic tattoo ink. Not only is it REACH-compliant, but it’s also sterile and sealed in a crystal-flex bottle. You can even scan the waterproof label and double-check that it’s authentic.
What other tattoo inks are safe?
We have a soft spot for Italian-made Panthera ink. Not only is it free from carcinogenic substances, but it’s very skin-friendly. The Black Gold color is completely preservative-free. It’s supposedly the only preservative-free black ink in the world.
We mentioned Quantum Tattoo Ink. That brand got quick approval for its vegan black inks and gray wash as they contained none of the harmful pigments anyway. Then it started reformulating other colors to come up with the Gold line that’s REACH-compliant. Finally, the company is working on safe alternatives to the toxic blue and green pigments that are banned.
Meanwhile, Intenze and Mario Barth have created the Gen-Z line of REACH-compliant inks. One of our favorites is the Black Sumi Japanez color suited to black and gray tattoos. (Did you know that Mario tests the ink on himself?)
Eternal Ink’s gray wash is vegan, REACH-compliant, and gamma-sterilized to kill bacteria.
And to wrap up, Eclipse (made in Europe) offers a versatile black that not only works well for shading but also makes a beautiful gray wash for realistic and portrait tattoos.
1. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2022/august/exposing-whats-in-tattoo-ink.html Exposing what’s in tattoo ink, published August 24, 2022
2. https://www.cancercenter.com/risk-factors/tattoos Can tattoos increase cancer risk? Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science, Updated June 13, 2022
3. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2018/july/tattoo-health-risks Think Before You Ink: Tattoo Health Risks, published July 17, 2018
4. https://www.healthline.com/health/can-tattoos-cause-cancer#cancer-risk Can Tattoos Cause Cancer? Medically reviewed by Megan Soliman, MD — By Kristeen Cherney on May 27, 2021
5. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/body/health/a40879020/tattoo-ink-cancer/ Tattoo ink could emit cancer-causing chemicals after sunlight exposure, by Jennifer Savin, published 25 August 2022
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4699750/ Kim HS, Kim YJ, Seo YR. An Overview of Carcinogenic Heavy Metal: Molecular Toxicity Mechanism and Prevention. J Cancer Prev. 2015 Dec;20(4):232-40. doi: 10.15430/JCP.2015.20.4.232. Epub 2015 Dec 30. PMID: 26734585; PMCID: PMC4699750.
7. https://www.acsh.org/news/2022/09/09/tattoos-can-theoretically-cause-cancer-so-can-removing-them-16541 Tattoos Can Theoretically Cause Cancer – So Can Removing Them, By Josh Bloom, September 9, 2022
8. https://echa.europa.eu/hot-topics/tattoo-inks Tattoo inks and permanent make-up
10. https://www.inkedmag.com/original-news/quantum-tattoo-ink-releases-eu-reach-compliant-gold-label-colors Quantum Tattoo Ink Releases Eu Reach Compliant Gold Label Colors, By Inked Mag Staff, July 26, 2022