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Trend for larger tattoos masks a deeper problem of toxins and the skin

Bottoms up. Instagram/NikkoHurtado

Evolutionary biologists argue that we humans climbed to the pinnacle of our mammalian tree as a result of a penchant for sun and sex. And that our human prowess was guided, if not driven by our adaptation to life on this sun-drenched planet (a remarkably high proportion of our genome is associated with UV receptors). While the potential dangers of too much sun on the skin are well known, what about the new skin fashion-du-jour – tattoos?

Since the 1960s there has been a huge growth in our interest in all things brand-like. Not only for clothes, cars, jewellery and watches, but increasingly also more indelible branding on the skin – and with the rise of inked corporate brands, sometimes quite literally.

David Beckham: mainstream poster boy. Personeelsnet, CC BY-SA

It’s fair to say there has been a veritable explosion in tattooing in the West over the past 20 years. As much as 10% of the general population is now tattooed, rising to almost one in four young adults, mostly driven by an apparent urge for subgroup identity/branding or aesthetics. But no longer just the small butterfly/birds or the “I love Mum” of yesteryear, we now have the gigantic swathes of tattoo sleeves on footballers and their followers, their WAGS and retinues.

It is an almost inevitable feature of humanity that the “immortal” young are determined to enjoy a period of unfettered, apparent consequence free, risk-taking. Alas, the laws of nature are often less forgiving than society and there are now justified (in my view) concerns that rampant large-surface area body tattooing is joining the list of other risks that include excessive drug and alcohol-taking and unprotected sun and sex. And along with this come the inevitable spikes in health problems such as melanoma rates and liver cirrhosis.

A dangerous art?

Tattooing may seem like just a piece of skin art, but it involves the deep injection of potentially toxic chemicals into the skin.

And as larger swathes of the body are covered, what might be the unintended consequences of this? While some design choices could do with regulation, the only regulated tattoo-associated activity is infection control, in other words cleanliness.

Peeling back the layers: Rick Genest.

Tattoo needles pierce through the epidermis, the skin’s top layer, (sometimes to depths as much as 2mm) and into the dermis below to deliver their inks. There is no doubt that certain ink constituents can be toxic (as a 2012 survey for the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found) and some ink manufacturers have acknowledged that some tattoo studios use inks containing carcinogenic compounds. These are being injected directly into the skin.

We’ve also been studying how our skin relates to ink pigments and their associated chemicals. With colleagues Colin Grant and Pete Twigg, specialists in the use of atomic force microscopes (AFM) and tissue mechanics, we’ve been taking a closer look at tattoos, and the greater reaction of these pigments in nano-particle form. In particular we and others are concerned that ink nano-particles, which we know can leave the skin over time (most likely via the skin’s dense network of blood and lymphatic vessels) end up in other organs of the body.

In the laboratory we’ve submitted research that shows that exposure of fibroblasts (the cells that make collagen in skin) with tattoo ink (even when highly diluted) significantly reduces their viability. Collagen is the body’s main connective tissue, and nano-particles of tattoo (50-150nm diameter) can become embedded in the collagenous network of the dermis. Later the ink particles appear around blood vessels.

Poison in the dose

It is perhaps the nature of modern liberal societies that we move very slowly in protecting against untoward consequences of personal choice. So too for tattooing and tanning salons where our EU/national laws and legislation lag far behind where tattooists’ and tanning salon operators’ activities can ensure safety. And let’s not forget the substantial economic drivers too, as industries, including the rapidly increasing numbers of tattooists, salon bosses, growing numbers of ink and tattoo needle/gun manufacturers and suppliers, print/electronic media.

Last year the first European Congress on Tattoo and Pigment Research was held as was the inauguration of the European Society of Tattoo and Pigment Research. The purpose of this pioneering conference and new scientific society is to give voice to ongoing clinical and social research and to educate on tattoos and their associated industrial pigments – not just medical communities, but those tasked with protecting public safety and those involved in the manufacturing, distribution and sale of tattoo ink and instruments of injection.

There is much to learn about this subject. We’re only just beginning to look at the potential medical complications of tattooing including infections, carcinogenic properties, the potential for ink to cause mutations and allergies, and there is already emerging concern that tattoo ink-associated chemicals can be rendered more unstable by attempts to remove them, especially by lasers.

It is early days but we do need to increase knowledge and awareness, especially when tattooing has become so widespread (on the body) and in society. After all, as Paracelsus, the 15th-century founder of toxicology, warned us back in the day: “the poison is in the dose”.

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