Tattoos: Are they harmful?

tattooIt is interesting to know that in today’s culture, body art and piercings have become a popular form of self-expression. Tattoos, in particular, have become a common way of showing off ones individuality and as a form of art.

Tattooing has been used for centuries by tribal societies in religious rites and as a natural part of life. A tattoo is essentially a series of punctures wounds, made deep into the skin and filled with ink. It is made by penetrating the skin with a needle and injecting ink into the area, usually creating some sort of design.

Tattoos stay longer on a person because they are penetrated deep into the skin. The ink is not injected into the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) but instead, the ink is injected into the dermis, which is the second deeper layer of the skin. Dermis cells are very stable, so the tattoo is practically permanent.

Tattoos are usually done manually, but these days some tattoo shops have machines which make their work quite easy. Getting a tattoo can take about 15 minutes to several hours, depending on the size and design chosen (

The American Academy of Dermatology distinguishes between five types of tattoos:
i. Traumatic tattoos, also called ‘natural tattoos’, which result from injuries, especially asphalt from road injuries or pencil lead;

ii. Amateur tattoos, resulting from rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts;
iii. Professional tattoos, both via traditional methods and modern tattoo machines;

iv. Cosmetic tattoos, also known as ‘permanent make-up’, are the use of tattoos to enhance eyebrows, lips (liner and/or lipstick), eyes (liner), and even moles, usually with natural colors, as the designs are intended to resemble make-up;

v. Medical tattoos, which are used to ensure instruments are properly located for repeated application of radiotherapy and for the areola in some forms of breast reconstruction.

Additionally, tattoos are used in skin tones to cover vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disorder.
There is one thing that is certain, all tattoos have a story and their symbolism and impact vary in different places and cultures, but what, however, is still not clear is exactly what people are injecting into their skin for art’s sake.

Since tattoos are permanent, I personally think a lot of considerations should go into the decision in getting one.

According to a 2005 study, in a Northern Arizona University, each color and brand of ink has completely different ingredients and the carrier solution itself might contain harmful substances such as denatured alcohols, methanol, rubbing alcohol, antifreeze, detergents, or formaldehyde and other highly toxic aldehydes.

According to, a wide range of dyes and pigments and inorganic materials like titanium dioxide and iron oxides, and naphthol derivates, dyes made from ash, and other mixtures are now used in tattoos.

Currently, the popular one in use is Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS plastic), which is used in Intenze, Millenium and other ABS pigmented brands.

The first question I wish to ask is how harmful are tattoos? Do they have any harmful effect on the skin, especially because the process involves the use of needles and ink?

In attempting to answer any of these questions, it is very important to keep in mind the potential complications that go with it.

From a research made from WebMD, a potential risk is bacterial infection, symptoms of which include redness, warmth and a pus-like drainage while one may also have a reaction to the tattoo, in which bumps called granulomas or excessive scarring may appear.

Some people may have serious allergic reactions to the types of dyes used in tattoos, hence it is important to leave the tattoo parlour with a list of the types of dyes used, just in case of emergency.
A more serious risk is the spread of infectious diseases, which can be avoided by being particular about the tattoo parlour being used.

Diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tuberculosis, tetanus or HIV can spread if an artist uses dirty equipment. To be on the safer side, one should make sure that the parlour uses an autoclave, or a heat sterilization machine, on all non-disposable equipment before getting your tattoo. Needles and tubes should be removed from sterile packaging before every tattoo job. [Source: Mayo Clinic].

In addition, it is important to note, some allergic reactions associated with tattoos are almost exclusively related to tattoo inks and pigment carriers, some of which reactions include skin irritation and uticaria.

Skin cancers such as malignant melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma have also occurred within the boundaries of tattoos and gone unnoticed until they began to extend beyond the boundaries of the tattoo.

The fact that tattoos are permanent? once one has a tattoo, it is forever? is even another form of risk. Indeed, even though, nowadays, there have been a few known laser removals, they can only help to a point. These removals eliminate the tattoo with minimal side effects.

Tattoo removal can be very expensive, depending on factors like the size and design of the tattoo.
To remove a tattoo, it is always advisable to ensure that the person doing the removal is a medical doctor. Though the laser are called ‘removal’, completely removing a tattoo can be difficult depending on how old the tattoo is, how big it is and the types and colors of inks that were used.

Removal of an entire tattoo is not always guaranteed. However, it is best to consult with a dermatologist who specialises in tattoo removal. The dermatologist can provide a good idea of how much (if not all) of the tattoo can be removed and also tell whether or not anesthesia is used in the removal process.


On the contrary, there is no such thing as a safe tattoo. Indeed, even though there are a reasonable number of studies and case reports as to the adverse health effects of tattoos, the lack of extensive definitive studies proving adverse effects is not a proof that tattoo inks are safe.

Some people really enjoy their tattoos and keep them for life, whereas others might regret that they acted on impulse and didn’t think enough about it before getting one.

My advice to anyone interested in getting a tattoo, therefore, is to “Think Before You Ink”. But just in case you have thought about it and decided you would get one, make sure you do a little detective work. Look for a clean, safe, and professional tattoo shop. And once you have received your “ink,” follow all the aftercare instructions that will be given by the artist.

It is advisable, to also limit the level of exposure of the tattooed area to the sun as much as possible. A lot of tattooed people have sun tans, but staying out of the sun for the first few weeks is very important.

This is because the sun will heat up the tattoo ink and this will cause the ink to move, just as when any element is heated. When this happens, your body reacts and treats the ink as a foreign element. It will then attempt to digest the ink so as to ‘flush’ the intruder. This is why tattoos exposed to sun will start to look faded. They are literally being absorbed. (Source:

Keeping your hands clean before and after touching your new tattoo until it is completely healed is also a very necessary point to note. Always bear in mind that getting and maintaining a tattoo is your responsibility. You have to protect and treat it to prevent any infections or other likely complications.

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