Most people who get a tattoo don’t have serious side effects. The most common problem is an infection, which might be caused by contaminated tattoo ink even in the cleanest parlor. Other side effects may include allergic reaction, skin cancer, keloids, granulomas, and more.
What is the problem?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates tattoo inks as a cosmetic, which means ingredients are subject to a pre-market approval process. More than 50 pigments and shades are currently used in tattoo inks, and the list keeps growing. However, no color additives are approved for injection into the skin.
In fact, many ingredients in tattoo inks aren’t even approved for contact with the skin. The FDA has discovered industrial grade pigments in some tattoo inks, including colors that are intended for printers’ ink and automobile paint.
The problem is that ink manufacturers do not need to disclose the ingredients in their products. In the past, it was not uncommon for tattoo inks to contain known carcinogens — for example, cadmium and mercury sulfide in red ink.
In addition, the FDA rarely screens inks or takes them off the market until after problems occur — such as outbreaks of infections. Earlier this year, the FDA recalled tattoo ink from White & Blue Lion, Inc., but they warned that the manufacturer was continuing to sell similar products under different brands.
Tattoo Side Effects
Tattoo side effects may include:
- Infection: Outbreaks of skin infections have been caused by contaminated inks, even in the most sterile tattoo parlors. If you develop a skin infection, seek emergency medical attention. You will probably need a prescription for an oral antibiotic. Severe infections can be life-threatening.
- Skin cancer: No one knows if tattoos cause cancer or increase the risk of skin cancer, but there have been case reports of people who developed squamous-cell carcinoma that may be due to carcinogenic ingredients in tattoo ink.
- Diseases: Non-sterile tattoo needles and equipment can transmit blood-borne diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and more. There have been outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant MRSA, including one outbreak in 2004 that sickened 44 people.
- Granulomas: These hard nodules form around particles of pigment inside your skin when your body rejects the ink.
- Allergic reactions: This rare but serious side effect is very difficult to treat because it is hard to remove every trace of pigment from the skin. Sometimes, allergic reactions develop after having the tattoo for years without problem.
- Keloid: This is a nodule made from scar tissue that can occur when scar tissue grows beyond normal boundaries.
- MRI problems: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) tests can react with metals in tattoo ink and may cause temporary burning, swelling, or a problem with the image.