Tattoos are a trendy way to decorate your body, but a new study reveals that the inks used in the process often contain unlisted substances that could cause health problems.

An analysis of tattoo inks from nine manufacturers in the United States found the contents rarely matched the label of the product.

Of 54 inks analyzed, nine out of 10 (90%) had major discrepancies with the labeled contents, such as different pigments or unlisted additives, researchers report.

The study comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prepares to regulate tattoo inks as part of new powers granted by Congress in 2022’s Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA), the researchers noted.

“The FDA is still figuring out what that is going to look like, and we think this study will influence the discussions around MoCRA,” said senior researcher John Swierk, an assistant professor of chemistry at Binghamton University-SUNY.

“This is also the first study to explicitly look at inks sold in the United States and is probably the most comprehensive because it looks at the pigments, which nominally stay in the skin, and the carrier package, which is what the pigment is suspended in,” Swierk added in a university news release.

Health experts typically are focused on skin cancer or the pigments in tattoo ink when it comes to the potential risks of tattoos, the researchers said in background notes.

But additives to the ink can also cause health risks, and if a client develops issues weeks or even years later, unlisted ingredients can make it difficult to figure out what is happening.

The tattoo inks analyzed in this study came in six colors, and they were purchased from manufacturers that ran the gamut from major global companies to smaller producers, researchers said.

More than half of the inks contained unlisted polyethylene glycol, which can cause organ damage with repeated exposure, results show.

Another 15 inks contained propylene glycol, a potential allergen, researchers said. Other contaminants included 2-phenoxyethanol, which poses potential health risks to nursing infants, and an antibiotic commonly used to treat urinary tract infections.

It’s not clear whether the unlisted ingredients were added intentionally or if the manufacturer was provided with incorrectly labeled or contaminated materials, researchers said.

The new study was published Feb. 22 in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

“We’re hoping the manufacturers take this as an opportunity to reevaluate their processes, and that artists and clients take this as an opportunity to push for better labeling and manufacturing,” Swierk said.

Future research will look at even smaller concentrations of substances found in tattoo ink, researchers said.

“Our goal in a lot of this research is to empower artists and their clients. Tattoo artists are serious professionals who have dedicated their lives to this craft and they want the best possible outcomes for their clients,” Swierk said. “We’re trying to highlight that there are some deficiencies in manufacturing and labeling.”

More information

Penn Medicine has more about the health risks of tattoos.

SOURCE: Binghamton University, news release, Feb. 26, 2024