Teledyne Leeman Labs Blog

Heavy Metal Exposure From Tattoo Ink

Posted by Jeff Forsberg on Feb 9, 2023 2:53:28 PM

Heavy Metal Exposure from Tattoo Ink_Blog Social Media ImageWhat’s my exposure risk to heavy metals such as lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury?

Well, that may be hard to quantify. Heavy metals are reported in a lot of environments, especially in heavy industry. Are there safeguards in place for our protection? Sure, but are we ever 100% safe from harm? After all, there are also reported self-induced risks. One example is by getting a tattoo. I’ve often wonder about the risk of inks used for tattooing.

Colorants turn out to be a good topic because, as you know, many pigments are manufactured from heavy metals and/or their oxides. One that comes to mind is Titanium White. An example of a tattoo ink risk is that some reds contain mercury. Some reds can also contain other sources of color, such as iron oxide.1 While red causes the most problems, most other colors of standard tattoo ink are also derived from heavy metals.

Tattoo inks are under the governance of the USFDA. But as I understand the governance, they fall under cosmetics, which is much different than bodily injections. As the FDA states, “due to other competing public health priorities and the lack of prior evidence of safety issues specifically associated with these pigments, the FDA has not traditionally exercised regulatory authority over color additives in pigments used in tattoo inks.”2

Mercury is widely known to be a dangerous metal that can cause acute poisoning. Heavy metals can cause allergic reactions, eczema and scarring. They can also cause sensitivity to mercury from other sources, like dental fillings, or consuming some types of fish. The brain is the main organ that is affected by mercury exposure. However, other organs can also be damaged, such as nerves, kidneys, and muscles. Animals exposed to mercury show adverse neurological and behavioral changes.3 Thimerosal is a mercury compound that has been used in the past as a preservative for some vaccines, but it has also been used in tattoo inks.4

“Of course, exposure to mercury and other heavy metals is hardly the only risk involved with getting a tattoo. The term tattoo itself means to puncture the skin. Tattoo ink is placed via needles into the dermis layer of the skin, where it remains permanently (although some colors will fade over time). Some people have reported sensitivity springing up even years after they first got their tattoo; also, medical MRIs can cause tattoos to burn or sting as the heavy metals in the ink are affected by the test’s magnetism.”5

So, know your ink source and components within the ink to be used. There are alternatives which use organic pigments, but that doesn’t mean that they are safe.6

I’m not a toxicologist or medical doctor, but I can safely say life is scary enough without voluntarily adding risk. I’ve been immersed in the analysis of samples for mercury and heavy metals for over 30 years. But in all honesty, that fact and follow-up discussions with acquaintances and family members didn’t detour them from a tattoo. But in my opinion, there is potential risk, so before you get a tattoo, take a moment to think about the potential risks.


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Tags: Heavy Metal Analysis