It seems there are an awful lot of really bad tattoos these days. We live in an inked up world of bad tribal designs, rusty-looking barbed wire, crooked writing and far too many butterflies and roses.
Every spring breaking 21-year-old wants one for an ankle or shoulder blade, and celebs sport some of the worst offenders, from Mike Tyson to Amy Winehouse. I once saw a large shirtless man at a theme park sporting a scaredy cat design sliding precariously down his spine.
Few of those who steel their nerves for the artist's chair probably think about the risks. (Obviously there is some risk of disease infection from unclean needles and equipment, so make sure you are seeing a knowledgeable provider, and not your uncle's friend in an alley). As the Bradenton Herald (Florida) points out, state and local authorities do oversee the practice of tattooing and inspect the conditions of shops, so sterile conditions are required. However, the paper notes that in the past no one has been checking up on the safety of the actual ink and pigments used in tattoos.
Although inks can technically be regulated as cosmetics by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it's no surprise that the agency traditionally has ignored them, given chronic staffing shortages. Still, the Herald reports that in December, chemists at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Arkansas began investigating tattoo inks to determine their composition, how they react in the body and how safe they really are.
Some experts have noted that the ink's "carrier" compounds, like alcohol, can "promote" harmful effects of any contaminants that might be present in the mixture.
A number of people do report itching, soreness and other irritations from getting tattoos, even long after the initial procedure. Some are allergic. Some of the pigments used are the same that show up in industrial applications like printing and car painting.
Even henna temporary tattoos, though derived from plants, can cause irritations, and can be mixed with other chemicals. Henna is not approved by the FDA for use on skin, although it has been used (mostly safely) in India for millennia.
To stay on the safe side, About.com's Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. recommends sticking with well-known colorants, rather than the latest trends. Red inks tend to carry relatively high risk of reaction, and lighter colors are more risky than dark ones. Avoid the questionable glow-in-the-dark inks... as well as looking like Mike Tyson.
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