Question: Our teenage son tells us he wants to get a tattoo. We are not thrilled about it, but we understand that many young people get them. Are there any health risks connected with tattoos?
Dr. Hibberd’s answer:
As a health professional, I cringe at the thought of permanently adding ink that may be attached to metallic and other contaminating compounds to the body. Once introduced, tattoo material is with you for life.
Here is a primer on tattoos:
• Much tattoo ink is not standardized or sterile. Infections and sensitivity reactions are often seen.
• Some tattoo ink suppliers have ink that contains metallic residues. This means you may risk serious and disabling skin burns if you are unfortunate enough to undergo an MRI. Patients with metallic screws, rods, and pacemakers know they are not to undergo an MRI study (with very few special exceptions). Now the list is expanded to include those who have tattoos that may contain trace amounts of metallic residue in the ink that was used. Unfortunately your tattoo artist may not always know if the components they were using contain metallic residue or other contaminants.
• Ink contains dye that does not entirely disappear if you should decide to have your tattoo removed using a laser. Laser tattoo removal does not actually remove the ink; it blasts the ink and the other miscellaneous contaminants of the tattoo into microparticles which are then engulfed by your white blood cells as part of an immune response to inflammation. The ink and the tattoo appear to have vanished, but have simply been redistributed to the rest of your body — to your lymph nodes by your lymphatic system, your spleen, liver, and other organ systems.
• The only way a tattoo can be removed is by dermabrasion (i.e. scraping the skin clear using topical abrasives in repeated sessions over an extended period of time); or surgical excision (which carries a risk of permanent scarring). Removal is not always an easy process and may not always be possible. It can also be a very expensive and time-consuming process.
• Although many artists use disposable needles and canisters, often the injector hubs and guns are reused, and may have been "misted" with the prior customer's aerosolized cellular debris. These hubs and guns are a potential source for serious transmitted diseases, including HIV, hepatitis, and staph infections.
My greatest concern is that some tattoo solutions contain metallic and other undesired contaminants that end up deposited over your entire body. Though no definitive malignancies are linked directly to tattoo removal, there is no doubt that you still have the "ink" in your body despite the tattoo itself being "removed."
Most malignancies have an inflammatory component to their initiation, and I am concerned when we add foreign substances to our circulation with an unknown effect on our immune system. I have no doubt that tattoo laser treatment has an increased risk for chronic toxic effects that may include an increased malignancy risk in the future.
We already know of many drugs and pesticides that can increase malignancy risks, so why add to that list?