While state and local authorities oversee the practice of tattooing, ink and ink colorings (pigments) used in tattoos are subject to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation as cosmetics and color additives.
However, because of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA has not traditionally regulated tattoo inks or the pigments used in them.
In a laboratory within FDA’s Arkansas-based National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), research chemist Paul Howard, Ph.D., and his team are investigating tattoo inks to find out
- the chemical composition of the inks and how they break down (metabolize) in the body
- the short-term and long-term safety of pigments used in tattoo inks
- how the body responds to the interaction of light with the inks
“There have been no systematic studies of the safety of tattoo inks,” says Howard, “so we are trying to ask—and answer—some fundamental questions.” For example, some tattoos fade over time or fade when they are exposed to sunlight. And laser light is used to remove tattoos. “We want to know what happens to the ink,” says Howard. “Where does the pigment go?”
“Our hope is to get a better understanding of the body’s response to tattoos and their impact on human health, and to identify products at greatest risk,” says Linda Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Director of FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
There was an entire symposium on tattoos in Berlin in June (2013).
So be aware when you’re getting that rose painted on your ankle, traces of lead and car paint have been detected in tattoo ink samples, for starters. And there’s very little regulation on such matters.
This is not to say all tattoo ink is toxic. It’s to say that we should be thinking about it.