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Tattoo Risks: 4 Little-Known Risks + How to Do a Tattoo Detox

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Tattoo risks - Dr. Axe

Whether it’s to make an artistic statement, pay tribute to a loved one or highlight an important moment in your life, getting a tattoo can be a creative and even therapeutic experience. But it’s important to know about scary tattoo risks before going under the needle. (Already sporting some ink? Don’t worry, we’ve got a detox to help below.)

What’s striking is that most people don’t know about these inherent tattoo risks. When researchers surveyed more than 200 individuals about medical issues related to tattoo risks, more than 50 percent of respondents answered questions incorrectly. This lack of knowledge spanned both tattooed and non-tattooed people.

This survey goes to show that the public could use some education on potential tattoo side effects to better make informed decisions. Considering 24 percent of American adults (according to 2006 data) have tattoos, it seems obvious that this form of expression isn’t going anywhere, so tattoo-goers will have to proceed with caution.

What’s In Tattoo Ink?

Are tattoos unhealthy? Let’s start by exploring what happens when you get a tattoo. A tattoo artist permanently injects ink into the skin using needles. The small incisions send macrophages to the area in order to close the wound and destroy foreign invaders. However, the ink particles are too large to be destroyed, so they remain in the dermis.

Colorants, or colored compounds, mix with a carrier fluid like glycerin to create particles particles. To get the desired color in an ink, pigments are commonly derived from minerals (heavy metals) or azo pigments that produce certain hues. Azo pigments seem to be particularly concerning to researchers because they can degrade and allow toxic compounds to enter the bloodstream.

Here are the chemicals that are found in certain tattoo ink colors:

  • Red — azo pigments, mercury, cadmium and iron
  • Blue — cobalt, copper
  • Green — chromium, lead, aluminum and copper
  • Yellow — cadmium, lead and zinc
  • Orange — cadmium
  • White — lead, titanium, zinc and barium
  • Black — nickel

What else can be found in tattoo ink? Nanoparticles, bacteria and additives.

Research published in The British Journal of Dermatology found that the nanoparticles in tattoo ink are so small they can penetrate through the skin layers and into the bloodstream.

These particles have potential toxic effects in the brain, cause nerve damage and may even be carcinogenic. Black ink is most often associated with higher levels of nanoparticles.

Studies also suggest that tattoo inks are sometimes contaminated with bacteria, including Staphylococci, Streptococci and Pseudomonas, even when they contain preservatives.

Scientists aren’t sure if the color pigments that remain in the skin layer are toxic, but they know that small amounts of ink particles do pass into the lymphatic system and can accumulate in the lymph nodes.

Tattoo Risks: 4 Possible Health Impacts

1. Allergic Reactions

It’s possible to experience an allergic reaction to tattoo ink that enters the skin. Signs of a tattoo ink allergy include raised skin, bumps and blisters, patchy and flaky skin and watery discharge from the tattooed area.

In some cases, a serious allergic reaction can occur and cause intense pain, trouble breathing, racing heart rate, dizziness and stomach pain.

2. Skin Reactions and Infections

When you get a tattoo, the needle damages the skin and causes blood clots to form where the blood vessels break. This is why the tattooed area typically becomes bruised and swollen; inflammation in the area protects it from further injury and promotes healing.

This healing process is normal after getting a tattoo and with proper care, will eventually subside. Failure to properly care for the skin after a tattoo raises your risk of infection. In serious cases, aseptic inflammation is possible, according to research published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.

The risk of infection seems to increase when tattoos are obtained at unauthorized facilities, according to a survey conducted in Italy. For this reason, it’s important to use a professional tattoo artist in a well-regulated studio. It needs to be a highly sterile environment to reduce the risk of infection and adverse effects.

If  mycobacteria contaminated the tattoo ink injected into the skin, infection symptoms like swelling, redness, itching and raised blemished skin may occurr. Permanently scarred may occur, depending on the severity of the infection.

3. Formation of Granulomas and Keloids

Sometimes, infected tattooed areas can cause granulomas — small areas of inflammation that become a mass of tissue. Granulomas are clusters of immune cells meant to wall off or protect the area from foreign substances.

Tattoos-related infections can also lead to keloids, raised scars that occur after injured skin heals. The incisions made when getting a tattoo can trigger keloid growth due to the excessive tissue repair required for the area to heal.

4. Carcinogenic Effects

A 2018 review of literature published in Aesthetic Plastic Surgery evaluated the incidence of tattoo-associated skin cancer. Researchers identified 51 publications and 63 cases of cancer linked to tattoos.

Although the strength of association remains unclear, the reports point to the carcinogenic potential of tattoo inks, particularly black, blue and red.

Is Henna Safer?

Unlike permanent tattoo ink injected into the skin, henna tattoo ink sits on the skin’s surface. Henna is temporary and it usually fades within a week or two. Although this may seem like the safer route, the FDA warns that temporary tattoos can cause severe, long-lasting side effects.

Reports indicate that henna dye often contains hair-dyes meant to last longer. Some of them can contain an ingredient called p-phenylenediamine (or PPD), a chemical not intended for skin use.

Topical PPD use can cause dangerous skin reactions, such as redness, blisters, raised lesions, loss of skin pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight and scarring, according to the FDA.

Tattoo Detox?

If you’re already sporting a tattoo, chances your lymph nodes contain heavy metals, nanoparticles and other tattoo ink compounds. If you’re concerned about long-term effects of tattoos, it’s important to know there are things you can do to help your body clear some of the unwanted compounds. A “tattoo detox” may not prevent or treat adverse effects of tattoos on your skin, but it could help your body expel potentially dangerous components.

To do a heavy metal detox, try this:

  • Load up on detoxifying foods like leafy greens, antioxidant herbs and spices, vitamin C foods, garlic and onions, flax, chia seeds and lots of water.
  • Avoid foods made with additives, potential food allergens and non-organic foods.
  • Use supplements that help to break down heavy metals to promote expulsion from the body. This includes chlorella, milk thistle, vitamin C and probiotics.
  • Introduce detoxifying treatments, like chelation therapy, activated charcoal treatments and bentonite clay.

Final Thoughts

  • Tattoos are popular — more than 24 percent of American adults go under the needle. But reports indicate that many people, even those already tattooed, are unaware of the potential health risks.
  • Tattoo risks stem from tattoo ink ingredients and skin reactions. Particles in the ink remain in the body, either stuck in the dermis or passed to the lymph nodes and throughout the body. This can lead to symptoms of heavy metal toxicity.
  • The incisions made when getting a tattoo can result in inflammation, redness, scarring, allergic reactions and even serious infections.
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