Tattoo risks, side effects and precautions

New International Version
"'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.(Leviticus 19:28)

This post isn’t about the horror stories associated with dodgy tattoos. I’m not concerned with writing about damage done by unqualified artists, infections, or allergic reactions. I’m more interested in filling you on just what you’re putting into your body when you get a tattoo, and what this does for your health.

Our skin is our largest organ, and anything that you apply to your skin is absorbed straight into your blood stream. So, everything found in a tattoo ends up in your system.


Way back in the day, traditional tribal tattoo marks were made using dyes from the natural environment. This is certainly not the case any more. While it’s near impossible to say what’s in all tattoo inks (they are all different, and disclosure of ingredients is not actually enforced), it’s safe to say that most colours of standard tattoo ink are derived from heavy metals.

Mercury = red ink
Lead = yellow, green, white ink
Cadmium = red, orange, yellow ink
Nickel = black ink
Zinc= yellow, white ink
Chromium = green ink
Cobalt = blue ink
Aluminium = green, violet ink
Titanium = white ink
Copper = blue, green ink
Iron = brown, red, black ink
Barium = white ink

Other compounds used as pigments include antimony, arsenic, beryllium, calcium, lithium, selenium, and sulphur.

Tattoo ink manufacturers typically blend the heavy metal pigments and/or use lightening agents (such as lead or titanium) to reduce production costs.

Why are heavy metals such a problem? They bind in our bodies and are incredibly difficult to remove. They cause damage on a cellular level and contribute to cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and diseases of the kidneys, circulatory system, and nervous system.

Then there’s the carrier solution, which most likely contains harmful substances such as denatured alcohols, methanol, rubbing alcohol, antifreeze, detergents, or formaldehyde and other highly toxic aldehydes.


It’s important to remember that tattoos breach the skin, a fact which itself carries medico-legal implications. But that’s another broad issue not relevant to this discussion, and which I won’t get into. But this means that skin infections and other complications are possible, among which are:

Allergic reactions
Tattoo dyes – particularly red, green, yellow and blue dyes – can cause allergic skin reactions, such as an itchy rash at the tattoo site. This can occur even years after you get the tattoo.

Skin infections
The manifestations of an infection, such as redness, swelling, pain and a pus-like drainage can occur after tattooing.

Unsterile tattooing equipment and needles can transmit infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C. This is why the American Association of Blood Banks requires a one-year wait between getting a tattoo and donating blood. It is of paramount importance to make sure that all tattooing equipment is clean and sterilized before use. Even if the needles are sterilized or have never been used, it is important to understand that in some cases the equipment that holds the needles cannot be sterilized reliably due to its design. Furthermore, the person who receives a tattoo must be sure to care for the tattooed area properly during the first week or so after the pigments are injected.

Other Skin Problems

Sometimes bumps called granulomas form around tattoo ink. Tattooing can also lead to keloids – raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue. We all know about these. If you have had a keloid before from a cut or other skin lesion, do not get a tattoo.

Blood borne diseases. If the equipment used to create you tattoo is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract various blood borne diseases – including tetanus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. We’re talking serious morbidity and possibly mortality here – and there’s also the possibility of HIV transmission. Do I need expand on this?

When insurance companies’ applications include on their questionnaire whether you have tattoos or multiple body piercings, what do you think they’re getting at? Think about it.

MRI Complications

On occasion, tattoos or permanent makeup might cause swelling or burning in the affected areas during MRI exams. Sometimes tattoo pigments can interfere with the quality of the image, such as when a person who has permanent eyeliner has an MRI of the eye. Some tattoo areas may actually cause burning of the skin because of the process involved. Medication or other treatment – including possible removal of the tattoo – might be needed if an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink occurs or you develop an infection or other skin problem near a tattoo.


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