Tattoos can potentially lead to a number of risks, including skin infections, allergic reactions, and scarring. Such risks may increase if you don’t see a licensed tattoo artist or if the wound itself heals improperly.
Aside from these risks, do you have to worry about the potential of cancer from getting new ink? Read on to learn what the science says, and how you can best guard yourself against common side effects associated with tattooing.
While researchers have studied the possible link between tattooing and cancer for years, any direct association is currently regarded as a myth.
Can tattoo ink cause cancer?
Getting a tattoo alone is unlikely to cause skin cancer, but there may be risks associated with certain ingredients in tattoo ink. Different colors are created with variations in pigment and dilution, while some contain materials that may be considered carcinogenic (which means “having the potential to cause cancer.”)
Some tattoo inks contain a substance called azo, which is also used in car paints. Red ink has also been studied for decades, with earlier research indicating an increased risk of liver cancer in rats who were exposed to red azo pigments.
Black inks are also considered a higher risk. A 2016 report from the Australian government found that 83 percent of the black inks tested contained a carcinogen called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Other pigments may include potentially harmful substances such as:
- vegetable dyes
Overall, tattoo ink is safer than in previous decades. Yet it’s still important to ask your tattoo artist what types of inks they use, what the ingredients are, and where they come from. It’s also worth noting that no tattoo inks are regulated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Making sure you receive quality ink that’s designed for tattooing may help protect you against possible cancer risks. It’s also important to be aware of other more immediate health risks associated with tattoos. Talk with a doctor about the following risks.
Allergic reactions may be possible from getting a tattoo. Unlike a skin infection though, this type of reaction is usually caused by the ink used. Your risk for developing an allergic reaction may be higher if you have a history of allergies or have sensitive skin.
Symptoms of a tattoo-related allergic reaction may include:
- rash or hives
It’s important to know that, while many allergic reactions occur immediately after getting a tattoo, it’s also possible to develop these symptoms weeks or years after.
Skin infections may develop as a result of contamination from unsterile needles or other items from tattooing. These infections can also occur if you don’t properly take care of your fresh tattoo wound.
Symptoms of a skin infection may include:
- open sores
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, see a doctor right away for treatment. They may prescribe antibiotics to help clear the infection. You’ll also want to continue following your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions to prevent possible scars.
The process of tattooing creates a wound deep within the dermis (middle layer) of your skin. It’s important to take care of your new tattoo so that this wound may heal and you’re left with ink you can be proud of.
However, tattoos that don’t heal properly may result in scarring. Skin infections, allergic reactions, and scratching at your tattoo wound can also increase these risks.
If your tattoo does scar, you may be left with uneven ink along with raised bumps of scar tissue called keloids. These may take 3 to 12 months to develop. Depending on their severity, you may need dermatological treatments, such as surgery, to help get rid of your scars.
Professionally licensed tattoo artists are required to use sterilized needles in their studios. The use of unsterilized needles is linked to an increased risk of certain infectious diseases, including:
While there is not a definitive causal relationship between tattoos and cancer, both hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS are associated with increased risk of different types of cancer.
Reactions from MRIs
While rare, it’s possible to experience significant skin reactions at the site of your tattoo if you undergo an MRI. Also called magnetic resonance imaging, these tests use a combination of radio waves and magnets to help your doctor see organs, bones, and other parts of your body.
But when tattooed skin undergoes this process, you may be left with red rashes and inflammation. First or second degree skin burns are also possible.
Avoiding an MRI may not always be possible, but if you expect to undergo this type of test at any point in the near future, you may consider holding off on getting a new tattoo.
You should also tell your doctor if you have tattoos. Also, it’s thought that red tattoo ink may increase reactions to MRIs due to its magnetic qualities, say the experts at Penn Medicine.
Finding a licensed, reputable provider is your first step to ensuring the best tattoo experience possible. Before going under the needle, find a few prospective tattoo artists and ask about their:
- licensing and experience
- sanitation practices
- process for handling and disposing materials
- policy of wearing gloves
- inks, and what types they use — the inks used should be intended for tattooing
- portfolio of work
You should also consider getting a skin check from a dermatologist before getting a tattoo, especially if the area of skin you want to get inked contains moles or other skin growths. In some cases, a tattoo can cover up skin issues, which could make possible skin cancers more difficult to detect. Never get a tattoo over moles.
Finally, once you have received a new tattoo from a reputable artist, it’s important to carefully follow their aftercare instructions. This will help reduce your risk for infections and scars. Call your tattoo artist if you notice any signs of infection or discoloration in your new ink.
To date, there’s no definitive proof that getting a tattoo causes skin cancer. While certain tattoo ink ingredients may be considered carcinogenic, there’s still a lack of evidence showing a link between these and any other cancers.
Still, it’s worth remembering that tattoo inks aren’t approved or regulated by the FDA. Until more is known about the carcinogenic properties of certain inks, you may consider asking your tattoo artist whether their pigments contain any metals, plastics, or other potentially harmful materials.
Despite concerns over cancer and tattooing, there are other risks that are far more likely to occur if you see an unlicensed artist, or if you don’t follow your aftercare instructions. Such risks include allergic reactions, skin infections, and keloid scarring.
Talk with your tattoo artist about your concerns before getting new ink. Any significant reactions post-tattooing should be looked at by a doctor.