If You’re Thinking of Getting a Tattoo, You Need to Know About These Scary Side Effects

Updated: May 11, 2021

Once common only to sailors, criminals, and other tough customers, tattoos now adorn nearly one in three Americans, per a 2015 Harris Poll. There's still reason to associate them with danger thanks to toxic substances in tattoo inks.

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Heavy metals

Before anyone signs up for a tattoo, they should ask themselves these questions first. And then consider the fact that many colors of tattoo ink contain heavy metals, according to a report in Scientific American, including lead, mercury, arsenic, beryllium, and chromium. Red dyes have been found to contain cadmium and iron oxide. While these metals give dyes their permanence, they are also linked to cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, and other scary side effects. Tattooed patients undergoing MRIs have suffered first-degree burns as the metals in their tattoo ink heated up.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate tattoo ink, and no pigments have been approved for injection into the skin for cosmetic purposes. Published research has reported that some inks contain pigments used in printer toner or in car paint.


Organ and tissue damage

Some of the substances most commonly found in tattoo ink can cause serious harm. Mercury is a neurotoxin, meaning it can damage the brain and nervous system and lead to physical and psychological disorders. Lead causes organ and tissue damage, and affects the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive system. Beryllium is a known carcinogen, and it is associated with an often-fatal lung disease called Chronic Beryllium Disease. Cadmium causes damage to the bones, kidneys and lungs. Arsenic, another common ingredient, causes chromosomal damage. A healthy diet can reverse some of the harm. These 8 herbs support brain health.

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Elevated liver enzymes

Keeping your liver healthy keeps you healthy, which is why you should keep an eye out for signs that not all is well with this detoxifying organ. Brooke Scheller is a functional medicine nutritionist with a devotion to clean living and an array of colorful tattoos. She first became aware of the presence of heavy metals in tattoo ink after some blood work indicated that her liver enzyme levels were those of someone in liver failure. “Exposure to these metals and toxins can place an extreme burden on the liver and the other detox organs. Studies show that the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (in black tattoo ink) have been found stored in the lymph nodes of tattooed people causing them to actually turn black,” wrote Scheller in a post on mindbodygreen.com.


Tattoo removal dangers

Anyone worried about tattoo-related health problems might reasonably consider having their tattoos removed, but ironically, doing so could lead to more trouble. (Find out about one new method of tattoo removal here.) Tattoo removal is probably not a good course of action for anyone worried about toxic exposures related to tattoos. In fact, the removal process can actually pose a greater health risk than getting inked in the first place because it results in heavy metals being scattered throughout the body. In laser tattoo removal, the inks are dissolved and those dangerous chemicals are dispersed into the tissue and bloodstream, where they can potentially cause more damage and linger in the body indefinitely.

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Think before you ink

So what can you do if you love the look of tattoos, but you’ve also grown fond of your liver? The answer lies in seeking out a tattoo artist willing to work with non-metallic organic pigments, according to the Scientific American article. Several manufacturers specialize in such inks, but given the lack of awareness about the dangers of conventional inks, it may be a challenge to find a tattoo parlor where they’re kept on hand.

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Heavy metal detox

If you have tattoos and you’re concerned about heavy metal toxicity, your best bet is to upgrade your diet with superfoods known to boost organ function. While severe cases of toxicity should be treated by a doctor, you might be able to help yourself out by eating a nutrient-dense diet that includes dark leafy greens, omega-3 fats (found in fatty fish, flax seeds, and egg yolks), foods rich in sulfur (garlic, onions), and plenty of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, recommends Dianne Moore, a certified health coach and founder of moorebetterfoods.com.

“Green tea is high in catechins, an antioxidant that boosts boost liver function,” says Julie Sarver, a holistic health coach in Portland, Oregon. Cilantro is recognized as an excellent food for detoxing heavy metals, as it’s high in selenium, which is critical for moving heavy metals out of the body. Artichokes are known to increase bile production, which supports the liver’s natural detox processes. Foods rich in chlorophyll, like leafy greens, celery, cucumbers, and sprouts, are true superfoods and can bind to heavy metals to move them out of your system.”