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Tattoo Inks: Poison Pigments?

Credit: iStockphoto/yulkapopkova

Credit: iStockphoto/yulkapopkova

By Ian Musgrave

Allergy and infection are two causes for caution when contemplating a tattoo. But are tattoo pigments toxic, and do they increase the risk of cancer?

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Humans have been tattooing themselves for as long as there have been humans, as far as we know. Ötze the Iceman, whose body was entombed in ice for around 5300 years, was tattooed with lines and crosses. Over the millennia, tattoos have wandered between being signs of royalty to being signs of criminality. Since Ötze’s time tattoos have become more complex and colourful, with regional specialisation. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-headed League, Sherlock Holmes was able to tell that a man had been in China from the shade of pink on the scales of a tattooed fish.

Tattoos are fashionable again, yet in many ways the chemistry of tattoos has advanced little. The commonest pigment for tattoos is still carbon black, although today it is applied with sophisticated needles, instead of cutting the skin and rubbing soot into the cuts, which is how Ötze’s tattoos were made.

Modern tattoos are made by injecting tattoo pigment by needle into the dermis, the layer of connective tissue that anchors the epidermis to the underlying tissue. The chemistry of the tattoo pigment has to ensure that the pigment does not migrate far from the injection site, and that the colour does not fade substantially over time.

For millennia, these conditions were largely met by carbon black and various metal compounds. Today, synthetic colours are part of the tattooist’s...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.