Most tattoo ink bottles contain mislabeled ingredients, may harm organs

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — You might want to consider what’s in that ink bottle before getting a permanent tattoo. Researchers from Binghamton University have discovered a concerning gap between what is listed on tattoo ink labels and the actual ingredients found within these inks.

The study began with researchers wondering how light affects tattoos and their chemical components. Doctoral student Kelli Moseman, along with colleagues Ahshabibi Ahmed and Alexander Ruhren, discovered that many tattoo inks contained substances not mentioned on their labels. This discrepancy raised questions about whether these were breakdown products or original ingredients.

The research team analyzed inks from nine U.S. manufacturers, covering a spectrum from global to smaller entities, across six different colors. Out of 54 ink samples, an astonishing 90 percent showed significant variances from their labels, including differing pigments and unlisted additives. Surprisingly, more than half of the samples contained polyethylene glycol, a compound that could lead to organ damage with repeated exposure. Other findings included propylene glycol, a known allergen, an antibiotic used for urinary tract infections, and 2-phenoxyethanol, which poses risks to nursing infants.

The implications of these findings are wide-ranging. For tattoo artists and clients, this study highlights the urgent need for better labeling and manufacturing practices.

“We’re hoping the manufacturers take this as an opportunity to reevaluate their processes, and that artists and clients take this as an opportunity to push for better labeling and manufacturing,” says study author John Swierk, an assistant professor of chemistry at Binghamton University, in a university release.

Researchers have discovered a concerning gap between what is listed on tattoo ink labels and the actual ingredients found within these inks. (Photo by cottonbro from Pexels)

Regulatory oversight of tattoo inks in the United States has been a recent development. Before the passage of the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA) at the end of 2022, tattoo inks were unregulated, classified merely as cosmetics. This legislation, for the first time, allowed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tattoo inks, including ensuring accurate labeling practices.

“The FDA is still figuring out what that is going to look like and we think this study will influence the discussions around MoCRA,” explains Swierk. “This is also the first study to explicitly look at inks sold in the United States and is probably the most comprehensive because it looks at the pigments, which nominally stay in the skin, and the carrier package, which is what the pigment is suspended in.”

The study’s focus on substances present at concentrations of 2,000 parts per million (ppm) or higher underscores the potential for even more unidentified compounds in tattoo inks, especially when considering that European regulations target substances in the 2-ppm range. With stricter regulations in Europe, the research team plans to explore the presence of banned pigments in European tattoo inks, particularly those colors most impacted by chemical regulations.

“Our goal in a lot of this research is to empower artists and their clients. Tattoo artists are serious professionals who have dedicated their lives to this craft and they want the best possible outcomes for their clients,” concludes Swierk. “We’re trying to highlight that there are some deficiencies in manufacturing and labeling.”

The study is published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

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