Tattoos: Be Smart About Body Art

No inks on the market today have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for injection into the skin – and yet one in four Americans age 18 to 50 has a tattoo. On Tuesday, the FDA hosted a webinar about the basics of tattoo regulation and safety. Whether you want to cover yourself with color or just get your eyeliner tattooed on, here are the facts you need to know.

One of the FDA’s jobs is to make sure that color additives – the substances that add color to everything from food to cosmetics – are used safely. To get approval for a pigment, a manufacturer must submit a petition to the FDA showing that the color additive is safe for whatever they want to use it for. Currently, no manufacturers have submitted petitions to use a color additive as tattoo ink, according to Bhakti Petigara Harp, a chemist in the FDA section of Cosmetics and Colors. Watch out for companies that allege their ink is FDA-approved; these claims are false.

From 2003 to 2004, the FDA received more than 150 reports of adverse reactions from tattoos. These side effects ranged from tenderness and swelling to itching and bumps. Most of these reactions were linked back to a particular brand of ink, which was quickly taken off the market. Another company bragged that its ink contained no preservatives – an attractive claim in our age of organic food. The problem was that, with no preservatives, bacteria and mold grew in the pigment, and many people suffered infections and other adverse reactions. These unfortunate incidents show how important it is to research the tattoo ink you plan to use.

The inks used for tattooing fall into two categories: inorganic pigments and synthetic organic pigments. Inorganic pigments are metal oxides, salts or minerals, like charcoal and cinnabar. A drawback of inorganic pigments is that some will fade or change color over time. The other type of inks are synthetic organic pigments. These were first synthesized in the mid 19th century to fill a demand for brighter colors. For those experiencing buyer’s remorse, some synthetic organic tattoo pigments can be removed with laser treatments.

In fact, 17 percent of people surveyed who had tattoos said they were considering getting their ink removed. Laser removal is an expensive, painful and time-consuming process that doesn’t always work. High-intensity light beams break up the pigment under the skin, fading the tattoo over time. Only a reputable dermatologist should administer laser treatment.

Another type of tattooing, called micropigmentation or permanent makeup, is used to replace traditional makeup. Common permanent makeup tattoos substitute eyeliner, lipliner and eyebrow pencil. Although some doctors offer permanent makeup tattoo services in a medical setting, these pigments are also not FDA-approved.

Some tattoos can interact with MRI scans, causing swelling or burning around the tattoo during the procedure. However, the risks of not getting a needed MRI are greater than the risks of tattoo interaction, so don’t avoid an MRI if your doctor says you require one.

Even though the FDA chooses not to exercise its authority to regulate tattoo pigments, this doesn’t mean consumers have to go unprotected. Research the ink you plan to use to make sure it has not been recalled and that the company marketing it doesn’t make suspicious claims like “FDA-approved” or “preservative-free.” Finally, make sure your tattoo artist is licensed in your state, and seek out reviews from former clients.  Here are some resources about tattooing:

Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?
Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts
MedWatch: The FDA Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program

Article by Rose Pastore