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Are Tattoos Toxic? New Research Shows Endocrine Disruptors, Metals and Carcinogens in Tattoo Ink

Research has turned up troubling findings about toxic chemicals in tattoo inks, including phthalates, metals, and hydrocarbons that are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

BROOKLYN, New York  – The End Is Near tattoo parlor in South Park Slope could pass for one of the neighborhood's upscale boutiques.

Local artwork covers the light blue walls. Ornate body jewelry fills a glass showcase. A stuffed badger greets visitors. There's just one thing that gives the parlor away  – the unmistakable electric hum of a tattoo needle.

"We're not the seedy underground that used to be," said Trischa, the shop's one-named manager, whose fair skin, revealed by a black tank top, is almost completely painted with ink.

As tattoo shops turn chic, ink's allure has spread into the mainstream. Despite the well-known risks of infection, allergies and scarring, an estimated 45 million people in the United States  – including 36 percent of adults in their late 20s  – have at least one tattoo, according to estimates by the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a Harris Interactive Poll.

Although sleazy "scratcher shops" with unskilled artists and dubious safety records are becoming a thing of the past, scientists are growing concerned about what's going into tattooed skin, not just how it got there.

New research has turned up troubling findings about toxic chemicals in tattoo inks, including some phthalates, metals, and hydrocarbons that are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Tattoo ink trouble is nothing new. The inks, which are injected into skin with small needles, have caused allergic rashes, chronic skin reactions, infection and inflammation from sun exposure, said Elizabeth Tanzi, co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C.

Now a new study published in July suggests that phthalates and other chemical ingredients may be responsible for those problems.

More concerning, these newfound chemicals raise unanswered questions about more serious, long-term risks such as skin cancer.

One of the chemicals found in black tattoo inks  – benzo(a)pyrene – is a potent carcinogen that causes skin cancer in animal tests. Dermatologists have published  reports in medical journals on rare, perhaps coincidental cases where  melanomas and other  malignant tumors are found in tattoos.

Could these chemicals increase the risk of skin cancer in people with tattoos?

"It's possible and definitely warrants additional investigation by the FDA," Tanzi said.

Recently, the FDA launched new studies to investigate the long-term safety of the inks, including what happens when they break down in the body or interact with light. Research already has shown that tattoo inks can  migrate into people’s lymph nodes.

For now the long-term health risks  – if any  – from tattoo inks remain murky.

"The short answer is we don't know if the chemicals in tattoo inks represent a health hazard," said Joseph Braun, an environmental epidemiologist at Harvard University in Boston, Mass., who was is not involved in the new studies.

In July, scientists  reported their discovery that the chemical dibutyl phthalate, a common plasticizer, along with other substances, are found in black tattoo inks. In the study of 14 commercially available inks, they found low levels of dibutyl phthalate in all of them.

"The substances found in the inks might be partially responsible for adverse skin reactions to tattoos," wrote the dermatologists from Germany’s University of Regensburg.

For phthalates, which can mimic estrogen or disrupt testosterone, exposure of fetuses and infants is the major concern. In infant boys, prenatal exposure to dibutyl phthalate has been  linked to feminization of the reproductive tract. In men, phthalate exposure has been  linked to sperm defects and altered thyroid hormones.

But phthalates in tattoo inks may not carry the same risk.

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