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Tattoos leak metals into your lymph nodes, study finds

Ink isn’t the only thing that’s being left behind when you get a tattoo.

Now, a new study has found that tiny metal particles from the tattooing needle enter your skin and travel to the lymph nodes.

Researchers from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, found that nickel and chromium, which are allergens, are shed from a tattoo needle when a certain pigment is used.

The white pigment is called titanium dioxide and it is often mixed into bright colors such as blue, green and red.

The team thinks these heavy metals may explain why some people have bad reactions to tattoos and intend to investigate further health effects of the potentially toxic metals shed into tattoos.  

A new study from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility has found that when a certain pigment is used, tattoo needles can erode, causing metal particles to enter the body (file image)

Tattoos have become increasingly popular in the US, especially among teens and young adults.

A Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of people between ages 18 and 29 have at least one.

Half of that group said they had between two and five tattoos, and 18 percent had six or more.

Adverse reactions after getting tattoos are common, with people reporting redness, swelling or rashes around the tattoo site.

A 2015 study conducted by New York University surveyed 300 New Yorkers with tattoos, and more than 10 percent reporting suffering an adverse reaction.

Until recently, most experts blamed the inks. 

But the team at the ESRF discovered in previous research that metal nanoparticles were in the lymph nodes of tattooed people and were trying to find a link.    

‘We were following up on our previous study, by trying to find the link between iron, chromium and nickel and the coloring of the inks,’ said corresponding author Ines Schreiver, a scientist at the ESRF. 

‘After studying several human tissue samples and finding metallic components, we realized that there must be something else…Then we thought of testing the needle and that was our “eureka” moment’.

For the study, published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology, the team studied ink samples under an intense X-ray.

They found that when tattoo ink contains titanium dioxide – a white pigment often mixed into bright colors including blue, green and red – the needle can erode. 

However, this does not occur when artists use carbon black ink, which is softer.

‘There is more to tattoos than meet the eye,’ said author Hiram Castillo, a scientist at the ESRF.

‘It is not only about the cleanliness of the parlor, the sterilization of the equipment or even about the pigments. Now we find that the needle wear also has an impact in your body.’ 

The metal particles found in the lymph nodes ranges from 50 nanometers long – as small as DNA molecule – to two micrometers long – about the size of a bacterium cell.

Nanoparticles are considered more hazardous than larger particles because they have surface area per volume, which can cause a potentially higher release of toxic chemicals.  

‘Unfortunately, today, we can’t determine the exact impact on human health and possible allergy development deriving from the tattoo needle wear’, said Schreiver. 

‘These are long-term effects which can only be assessed in long-term epidemiological studies that monitor the health of thousands of people over decades.’ 


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