Public Release: 

Chemicals in tattoo inks need closer scrutiny

American Chemical Society

SAN DIEGO, March 13 -- As tattoos have grown in popularity, so have complaints of adverse side effects associated with both their application and removal. A new study, done by chemistry students at Northern Arizona University, looked at the chemical composition of a variety of tattoo inks to better understand their potential health risks.

The findings, presented today at the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, suggest that closer regulation of the tattoo industry may be warranted, according to the researchers.

Although inks used in tattoos are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as cosmetics and color additives, the agency has not traditionally regulated them, letting the task fall to local jurisdictions, according to a fact sheet issued by the FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors This effectively gives a tattoo artist license to inject whatever he or she deems appropriate under the skin, according to the researchers.

"Tattoos are no longer limited to the rough and rowdy," says Haley Finley-Jones, an undergraduate chemistry student and lead author of the study. "With the growing popularity of tattoos among young people, it is vital that we develop a better understanding of this form of self expression."

The new research -- a joint effort between Finley-Jones and Leslie Wagner as part of an undergraduate research project directed by Jani Ingram, a professor of chemistry at NAU -- has two main goals: to characterize the diversity of tattoo inks, and to determine if any inks pose health threats in the form of heavy metals or other potentially dangerous chemicals.

Overall, the study covers 17 inks from five different manufacturers. "We chose to study five different brands of black ink as it is the most common color used in tattoos," Finley-Jones says. The researchers also are testing three different brands of red, blue, yellow and white ink. Tattoo artists frequently mix inks to achieve the desired color, so the researchers selected their samples based on the most likely base colors.

Because there have been no previous studies, they are using analytical techniques that can test for a wide variety of chemical components, rather than looking for a specific group of compounds.

"At this point in the study, we have determined that the inks do in fact vary in composition from manufacturer to manufacturer and from color to color," Wagner says. The researchers also have found some indication of the presence of metals, and are in the process of running more tests to verify the identity of the metals.

A number of potential health problems might be stemming from the lack of oversight, according to the researchers. There have been a variety of claims that tattoo inks cause adverse effects in people, including allergic reactions to ink components, a burning sensation during the course of MRIs, and the migration of inks to different tissues in the body, such as the lungs.

It is unclear, however, what the specific causes of these reactions might be, and the only way to gain better understanding is to know what chemicals make up the inks, the researchers say. Finley-Jones and Wagner expect that the variation found in their testing and the potential presence of toxic metals will encourage regulators to begin monitoring the tattoo ink industry more closely.

There are other problems with unknown compositions of tattoo inks. For example, surgery to remove tattoos is becoming more widespread, and not knowing the composition makes the procedure more difficult. "Once the components of a tattoo ink have been identified, doctors removing the inks can use their knowledge of the chemical characteristics of the components to select a treatment that will be most effective and, hopefully, the least painful for the patient," Wagner says.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers. It publishes numerous scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

-- Jason Gorss


The poster on this research, ANYL 248, will be presented at 7:00 p.m., Sunday, March 13, at the Convention Center, Sails Pavilion, during the General Papers - Environmental and Forensics session

Haley Finley-Jones and Leslie D. Wagner are undergraduate chemistry students at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Jani C. Ingram, Ph.D., is a professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.

EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE: Sunday, March 13, 7:00 p.m., Pacific Time

ANYL 248 In the flesh: Chemical characterization of tattoo inks

Haley Finley-Jones1, Leslie D. Wagner2, and Jani C. Ingram2. (1) Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Northern Arizona University, P. O. Box 5698, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, Fax: 928-523-8111,, (2) Chemistry and Biochemistry, Northern Arizona University

The intentions of this study are to determine the composition of tattoo inks as currently they are not regulated. While the components of topically applied make-up must be approved by the FDA, a tattoo artist has the license to use whatever he deems appropriate for injection into the skin. The hypothesis this study seeks to prove is that there is a great variety in chemical compositions for tattoo inks on the market. It is expected that the variation of results will be useful in support of regulating the tattoo ink industry. To determine the actual variation of inks on the market, we will test several inks in a variety of colors. In this study we will employ a stepwise analytical approach to determine the chemical components of the ink samples. The results from metals analysis by ICP-MS and functional group screening by SIMS will be discussed.

Briefly explain in lay language what you have done, why it is significant and what are its implications (particularly to the general public)

Tattoos are no longer limited to the rough and rowdy. With the danger of dirty needles deteriorating, new potential risks are coming to the surface. The intent of this study is to determine the chemical composition of tattoo inks. It is widely unknown that tattoo ink manufacturing is not regulated by the FDA. Because of this, there are a number of potential health problems that might arise. There are other problems with unknown composition as well. For example, tattoo removal is becoming more prevalent and not knowing the composition makes it all the more difficult. In our research we have obtained a selection of inks varying in color and manufacturer. We are analyzing these inks using a variety of different techniques and methods. For health purposes, we are analyzing for heavy metals and other potentially dangerous chemicals. We are also trying to determine just how varied the components are. With the growing popularity of tattoos among young people, it is vital that we develop a better understanding of this form of self expression.

How new is this work and how does it differ from that of others who may be doing similar research?

This is the first scientific study done on the composition of tattoo inks. In literature searches, we were unable to find any similar research that had been published in a peer-edited journal.
Haley Finley-Jones
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Northern Arizona University
P. O. Box 5698
Flagstaff, AZ 86011
Phone Number: 928-523-7877
Fax Number: 928-523-8111
Publishable Email:

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.