Tattoos can be anything from lifelike images to intricate scenes of nature, and they are an art form. Tattoos are a popular way to express yourself. The U.S. does not regulate tattoo inks, so the components of these products are often a mystery. Researchers have now examined nearly 100 tattoos. They found that the ingredient lists are often inaccurate, even though they contain an ingredient label. They also identified small particles which could cause harm to the cells.
Today, the researchers present their findings at the American Chemical Society’s fall meeting.
John Swierk (Ph.D.), the principal investigator for the project, says that “the idea for this research project originally came about because of my interest in what happens when laser lights are used to remove tattoos.” Then I realized how little we know about tattoo inks’ composition so we began analyzing the most popular brands.
Swierk interviewed undergraduates at his lab to find out what tattoo artists knew about inks used on customers. While tattoo artists were able to identify brands they like, they weren’t able learn much about their contents. Swierk says, “Surprisingly no dye shop produces pigment specifically for tattoo ink.” Pigments are made by large companies for all kinds of products, including paints and textiles. These pigments also make up tattoo inks. He points out that although tattoo artists are required to have a license in their respective locales for safety purposes, no agency federal or regional regulates inks.
Two parts make up tattoo inks: the pigment and the carrier solution. One type of pigment is a molecular pigment like blue pigment. Another kind of pigment is a solid compound, such as titanium dioxide. Or a mixture of both. Light blue ink contains both molecular and molecular pigments. It helps to make the pigment more easily soluble by transporting it to the skin’s middle layer. You can control the viscosity, and it may contain anti-inflammatory ingredients.
Swierk’s Binghamton University team (State University of New York), have been studying the molecular structure and particle size of tattoo pigments. They use a number of techniques such as electron microscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance. They have also confirmed that certain ingredients weren’t on the labels. In one instance, ethanol wasn’t listed but chemical analysis revealed that it was in ink. This team was also able to pinpoint the specific pigments found in inks.
Swierk notes that every time Swierk looked at one ink, he noticed something unusual. Swierk says that of the 56 inks tested, 23 indicate an azo-containing color. The Joint Research Centre provides independent scientific advice and guidance to the European Union. Although most azo pigments don’t pose any health risks when chemically intact they can be degraded by bacteria or ultraviolet light into another nitrogen-based substance that could cause cancer.
Additionally, electron microscopy was used to analyze 16 inks. Only about half contained particles larger than 100 nm. Swierk says that this is a worrying size range. “Particles that are this large can pass through cells and cause potential harm.”
The researchers will upload the information to “What’s In My Ink” after they have run more tests. Swierk says, “With these data we want consumers to make informed choices and understand the accuracy of the provided information.”
Researcher acknowledges support from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
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