Friends of the Earth have called for the urgent regulation of nanoparticles and other chemicals in tattoo ink after researchers from the UK’s University of Bradford have warned that some tattoo inks could cause illnesses, including cancers (1).

Evidence has been found that nanoparticles from the ink can leave the skin – most likely via blood and lymphatic vessels – and be transported to other organs of the body. Scientists are concerned that toxins in the dyes may accumulate in the spleen or the kidneys.

Louise Sales, Coordinator of Friends of the Earth’s Nanotechnology Project said “these chemicals are being injected into peoples’ bodies without even basic safety testing. Given the enormous increase in tattooing in recent years this is a potentially significant public health concern.”

“Of particular concern are black tattoo inks. These are usually made of carbon nanoparticles despite carbon black being classified as possibly carcinogenic (2). Studies have shown that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and carbon black are more toxic and generate free radicals to a greater extent than larger particles of the same chemicals. Carbon black nanoparticles have also been shown to cause inflammation and damage DNA (3)” said Ms Sales.

Nanomaterials behave very differently to bulk particles of the same chemicals and are potentially more toxic. In 2004, the UK Royal Society argued that nanomaterials should therefore undergo proper safety assessments before they are allowed in consumer products. Our chemical regulator NICNAS (4) introduced regulation of nano forms of new chemicals in 2011, but has yet to introduce regulation for nano forms of existing chemicals used in tattoo ink such as titanium dioxide, aluminium oxide and carbon black.

Anthony Amis a toxic chemicals campaigner for Friend of the Earth said “nanoparticles are not the only potentially dangerous ingredients in tattoo inks. Many inks contain known carcinogens such as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Benzo(a)pyrene (a PAH), is a listed by International Agency for Research on Cancer as a Class 1 Carcinogen and has been found in tattoo inks (5). This means people are having cancer-producing particles injected directly into their skin. Tattoo ink pigments can also decompose in the presence of sunlight to form toxic chemicals – some of which are known or suspected carcinogens.”

“There is currently a regulatory black hole in Australia regarding tattoo inks. Because they are not classified as cosmetics, there are no regulations stating what chemical substances can be used in tattoo inks. There is an clear need for the mandatory labelling of tattoo inks, with chemical safety sheets to provide information about what is in the ink. Both Federal and State regulators need to act urgently on these issues” concluded Mr Amis.

(1) University of Bradford (2013) Can Tattoos Cause Harm?

(2) Høgsberg et al (2011) Tattoo inks in general usage contain nanoparticles; Baan et al (2006) Carcinogenicity of carbon black, titanium dioxide, and talc

(3) Høgsberg et al (2011) Black tattoo inks induce reactive oxygen species production correlating with aggregation of pigment nanoparticles and product brand but not with the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon content; Stone et al (2007) Air pollution, ultrafine and nanoparticle toxicology: cellular and molecular interactions

(4) National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme

(5) IARC Benzo[a]Pyrene Monograph; Regensburger et al (2010) Tattoo inks contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that additionally generate deleterious singlet oxygen