Think Before You Ink: The Unknown Risks of Tattoos

tattoo risksTattoos may have been around for thousands of years, but any time a foreign substance is injected into the body, there are going to be risks. Before getting a tattoo, it’s important to be aware of these risks and to understand how they can affect you.

It’s easy to think that since over 20 percent of the United States’ population is inked up that modern tattoos can’t cause skin damage, but that isn’t true. In fact, about 10 percent of people who get a tattoo have a bad reaction that could last for months and even years. So before you get inked, make sure you know the following risks of tattoos.

The Most Common Risks of Tattoos

Tattoo Ink Isn’t Regulated

Tattoo ink is designed to dye the pigments in the skin and can be made using a variety of ingredients depending on quality and color. Inks are typically subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as cosmetics and color additives, but tend to fly under the radar. The agency’s excuse for not properly regulating tattoo inks is due to higher public health priorities, as well as the lack of evidence regarding safety concerns. Even with the vast number of different pigments being used for tattooing, the FDA believes that the number of bad reactions after getting ink is too small for any regulati-on to be needed.

Tattoo Inks Carry Carcinogenic Nanoparticles

A 2011 study discovered nanoparticles in tattoo inks and found that these harmful particles are in most inks. These microscopic particles are able to penetrate the skin and travel into the bloodstream, where they could potentially enter organs and tissue. It has been proven that black tattoo ink carries these particles in the smallest size, and white ink carries them in the largest size. These nanoparticles can be carcinogenic, causing damage to the brain or the nervous system.

Allergic Reactions

Though it’s unknown how common it is to experience an allergic reaction after getting tattooed, it seems to occur most frequently among those who get tattooed with red ink. Itching, rashes, swelling and irritation last a minimum of four months and can persist for over a year. While the cause is unknown, severe side effects seem to occur after a second tattoo. For example, if a person is allergic to red ink, he or she may not have a reaction at first. Five or 10 years later, when he or she gets a second tattoo that contains red ink, both tattoos will be affected.

Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections are the most common side effect of getting a tattoo. Typically, one to five percent of those who get a tattoo will suffer an infection that is likely caused by unsterile needles or contaminated inks. Tattoo infections can be viral or fungal as well. Although needles and tattoo parlor conditions are heavily regulated, the Food and Drug Administration has done little to standardize inks. The agency has recalled contaminated inks, but it has little power over what tattoo parlors actually use.

MRI Complications

Strangely enough, many people have reported swelling or burning on tattooed areas during and after undergoing an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging. The cause has yet to be determined, but some say MRI complications might be due to the metallic components of some inks. These side effects have been reported most often by those who have permanent makeup, especially around the eyes. Tattoos that react this way have also been known to affect MRI results, making it difficult for doctors to come to a proper diagnosis. Mascara and other eye makeup can cause the same problem, but makeup can easily be removed.


Many tattoo enthusiasts forget to consider how the body changes with age. Even slight weight gain can drastically change the way a tattoo looks. Often, people go under the knife for health reasons or plastic surgery and come out of the O.R. with a distorted tattoo. Women who have permanent makeup or other cosmetic tattoos and undergo cosmetic surgery learn that the skin shifts, and the ink no longer lies where it was intended.

The age of a tattoo also causes deformation and fading because the body naturally attacks ink pigment as a foreign object in the body. Many who get their first tattoo don’t realize that it will require a bit of maintenance. Especially on areas of the body that are in the sun often, tattoos typically need a touch up every five to eight years. Without this, they fade to a point when color disappears.

Occasionally, this maintenance becomes too much for some. Touchups can be expensive, especially on larger tattoos. The cost and constant upkeep steers some toward finding tattoo removal near you. Others choose laser tattoo removal after their ink becomes distorted and unrecognizable.

While laser tattoo removal cannot reverse the health problems that ink can cause, it helps the body’s immune system eliminate toxins by breaking up pigment into smaller pieces. Those who find that they’re allergic to the ink that was used in their tattoo are typically forced to remove the tattoo if symptoms persist. Overall, most side effects of getting a tattoo can be healed with time or medical attention.

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