As you can probably guess, there’s no black or white answer to the question about tattoo ink safety. Considering the thousands of people who have tattoos with no apparent problems, balanced against growing concerns on the part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the best answer for now is "maybe."
If you’re considering a tattoo, an important thing to know is that there’s little regulation of tattoo ink. In a report updated in June 2008, the FDA stated that pigments used in the inks require approval under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. “However, because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA traditionally has not exercised its regulatory authority over tattoo inks or the pigments used in them.”
Translation? The FDA has had more pressing issues to investigate. But that’s starting to change. The organization is performing additional research now and may take further action to safeguard the public health.
The FDA is paying more attention to tattoo ink in part because tattoos are so popular and widespread. Most people decide to get a tattoo simply as adornment or self-expression. But permanent makeup, also currently en vogue, is another reason people get tattooed. And some people opt for body ink as a component of cosmetic or reconstructive surgery.
The FDA also mentions “the increasing variety of pigments and diluents” as a concern, noting that the growing list of ink colors includes more than 50 shades. The agency notes that some inks contain metallic particles, and some experts believe they contribute to swelling and burning during MRI procedures.
Some people develop an allergic reaction to tattoo ink, which can be immediate or delayed even for years. The FDA acknowledges that this is rare, but when it happens it can be a real problem since tattoos are difficult to remove.
Perhaps most alarming, the FDA says that while many of the pigments used in tattoo inks are approved for cosmetics, none has been given the green light for injection into the skin. Furthermore, some pigments should not even come in contact with human skin—pigments “suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.”
If you’re still intent on getting that little butterfly on your shoulder or you’ve decided permanent eyeliner is right for you, how can you have the best chance of a good outcome? You guessed it again, research the artist. Choose a professional with experience and discuss the inks they use. Some artists mix their own inks and may be willing to tell you what they contain. Even if they buy from ink manufacturers, a tattoo artist with a good track record will know if there have been problems with inks they use.
For more information on tattoo safety, visit www.fda.gov and type "tattoo" in the search window. If you have a problem with a tattoo, the FDA encourages you to report it. To do this, look for the “Report a Problem” links on the agency's home page.