Tattoos may not be going out of fashion – but toxic inks are about to
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Tattoos may not be going out of fashion – but toxic inks are about to

There’s no denying that tattoos are becoming more and more common in society today. In fact, one in four Europeans between the ages 18 to 35 have a tattoo. While the health risks of using dirty needles have been known for some time, the inks that are being injected under the skin have until recently not raised a lot of concern among consumers.

But the truth is that tattoo inks are made up of a complex mix of chemicals that stay in the body for life, and several of these chemicals are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutations, toxic effects on reproduction, allergies or other negative health effects.

Pigments are the main ingredients in tattoo inks. These pigments are, however, not produced specifically for tattoos. In fact – as crazy as it may sound – the pigments used in tattoo inks are usually produced by the chemical industry for products like textiles, car paints and plastics.

For this reason, no risk assessment that considers the pigments’ injection and permanence in the human body is carried out – which adds to the concern. Especially when the most commonly used pigments in tattoo inks are proven to release potentially carcinogenic aromatic amines when exposed to intense light such as the sun or laser (often used for tattoo removal).

“The pigments used in tattoo inks are usually produced for textiles, car paints and plastics”

Moreover, tattoo pigments may contain up to 30% impurities where many harmful chemicals have been found – such as cancer-causing chromium VI and cobalt.

In light of this, EU member states recently voted in favour of an EU-wide legislation that would restrict the use of hazardous chemicals in tattoo inks and permanent make-up. The restriction would impose concentration limits for dozens of harmful chemicals.

Some of these substances are already restricted under an EU cosmetics law and not allowed to be used on the skin. It makes sense, therefore, that it wouldn’t be safe to inject them under the skin either.

This proposal has been cooking for some years. Already in 2017, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) together with a couple of member states submitted a proposal to restrict certain chemicals in tattoo inks and permanent make-up, stating human health risks as a primary concern.

Now, three years later, an EU restriction may soon enter into force.

“Hazardous chemicals should have been phased out of tattoo inks a long time ago

Two specific pigments – blue 15:3 and green 7 – have however been exempted from the restriction, following a call from industry. Industry argued that an exemption would give small tattoo shops “a fair chance to prosper” since the pigments are needed to cover the entire colour spectrum and available alternatives are unsuitable.

This means that – for these two pigments – industry is given two years to find safer alternatives and remove them from the market. For all other chemicals, the restriction would apply one year after the regulation enters into force.

“We’ve been waiting for this restriction to be finalised. Hazardous chemicals should have been phased out of tattoo inks a long time ago. We do not, however, agree with the decision to let two pigments off the hook simply because small tattoo studios aren’t ready to switch to safer alternatives yet”, says Frida Hök, Deputy Director at ChemSec.

The restriction proposal will now be scrutinised by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers before it can be adopted by the EU Commission.