Tattoo Toxicity and What You Need to Consider


There is no doubt that the practice of tattooing has exploded in current pop culture.  An art practiced for centuries, current day practice involves an estimated 45 million of our adult population, and more than 1/3 of the 20-something population in the U.S.   The explosion in pop culture occurred after  TV shows such as Miami Ink and  LA Ink revealed the inner workings and culture of tattoo artists and their salons.  The contribution of social media outlets following these artists amplified the explosion.  While undoubtedly a captivating and often beautiful art, numerous health concerns are now surfacing with tattooing. The practice raises some serious questions for tattoo customers.  The concerns have moved way beyond early associations of dirty needles and the threat of tetanus to serious toxicity issues. Unresolved questions/answers remain.  There are currently no FDA regulations on tattoo inks, with multitudes of ink sources within and outside of the U.S.  In this recent explosion, investigations into health and safety standards of the materials have barely begun and there is still much to be understood. But in light of the limitations, the intent of this article is to cover some of the existing confirmed information along with testing and protocol recommendations from my thoughtful approach at True Nature Health Consulting.

PAHs and Associated Tattoo Ink Dangers

Of paramount concern with tattooing and toxicity are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  Black tattoo ink, based from coal tar and/or soot contains the largest concentration of PAHs.  Additionally, black ink is nearly 100% nanoparticle, tiny & highly absorbable particles which allow easy invasion and accumulation in the cells of the body. There is a documented preference for migration of ink nanoparticles into the spleen & kidneys, both of which are critical organs for immune and detoxification processes.  Authors of a 2013 study at Bradford University concluded with this statement regarding these findings on nanoparticles and toxicity/cancer risks:

"“…There is no question that these substances can be toxic. It takes a long time for the multiple-step nature of cancer to show its face. I don’t think we should wait 20 years to see if there is anything wrong with these ingredients.”

It has been postulated that PAHs may remain in the body for life. PAHs are considered pollutants due to their potential for causing adverse health effects and have been strongly linked to skin, lung, bladder, liver, and stomach cancers PAHs are known to be carcinogenic, especially benzo(a)pyrene, now a Group 1 classification for cancer risk.  Levels of this specific PAH were shown in tattoo customers to reach levels of .1 to .3 , with the determined acceptable level at only .04.

PAHs are known to:

  • absorb UV radiation, compromising skin integrity (the body's largest organ)

  • increase ozone content in the blood

  • decrease mitochondrial function of the body's cells

  • increase reactivity towards organic compounds due to generation of singlet oxygen

  • compromise connective tissue and skin elasticity, both vital to human health

Accumulations of tattoo ink have been discovered in lymph nodes near tattoo sites, months and even years after the tattoo was placed on the body. The presence of tattoo ink particles in lymph and interstitial spaces has even contributed to the recent understanding of the interstitium as an organ system. Lymph-related cancer risks include skin (especially melanoma), colon, lung, and bladder.  The lymphatic system is the cleansing partner for the blood in the body, and all of the body’s cells are dependent upon proper lymphatic drainage and health to remove toxins.

Heavy Metals and Tattoo Ink

As the result of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI), two of the leading US tattoo ink manufacturers must now place warning labels on their product containers, catalogs and websites explaining that “inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others” and that these components have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Both black and colored inks contain heavy metals, with black ink samples high in lead and colored ink samples showing high levels of lead, cadmium, nickel, titanium, mercury & chromium.  Numerous research studies show correlations between these heavy metals and cancer, heart disease, and multiple neurological disorders.

Phthalates and Tattoo Ink

Dibutyl phthalate is a plastic stabilizer which is present present in black tattoo ink samples.  Phthalates can disrupt testosterone and/or mimic estrogen in the body, and fetal exposure to phthalates is a major concern. This can occur both through the womb and through passage of toxins through the male’s epididymis. In infant boys, prenatal exposure to dibutyl phthalate has been linked to feminization of the reproductive tract.  In men, exposure to phlalates has been linked to sperm defects and altered thyroid hormones.  A critical next course of study, given the lack of understanding about the clearing of these toxins from tattooing, is what toxins might be passed from an adult's body to a developing fetus.  Current research and information in this area indicate that the risks are considerable.

Tattoo Toxicity and Testing

At True Nature, we are committed to the science of applicable testing and targeted therapeutic protocols.  It is my opinion that regular testing is necessary for anyone who is receiving tattoo art. Additionally, individualized detoxification protocols based upon test results are in order.  A majority of my clients have compromised methylation function, and I believe many others have this weakness, unknowingly.  We are exposed to a massive number of chemicals, heavy metals and environmental pathogens - more than our bodies were designed to filter and excrete properly.  A carefully chosen set of tests, including blood & hair analysis, and possibly hormone testing, can be very effective for determining a person's risks as well as the appropriate approach. Testing choices are determined for each person individually based upon their health history and functional strength/weakness patterns.

While the choice to avoid tattooing is the only surefire prevention of the exposures discussed in this article, regularly scheduled testing and individualized detox procedures may reduce the risks described for those choosing to be tattooed. Please contact me at for more information.