The Shocking Hidden Health Problems Caused By Tattoos

The Shocking Hidden Health Problems Caused By Tattoos

Reputable artists, sterile salons and following aftercare rules to the letter: We’re under the impression that’s all it takes for tattooing to be safe. But as SL’s Features Editor Rosy Cherrington discovered, there’s so such thing as a ‘safe’ tattoo – and the huge effects they can have on your health are something she wished she’d known before going under the needle…

I had my first tattoo at 18. A decade later and I’ve just shy of 20 – a small heart on my wrist, a trail of roses on my hip, a large and intricate back piece. They span the tops of my feet to the back of my neck, and although I’m by no means ‘covered’ by industry standards, I’m definitely more inked than most.

But if only someone had warned me of what could happen to my skin – years on, long after the last one had healed – I would never have let a tattoo gun come near me.

It started with one, then two, then more. The outlines of various inkings began swelling up; raised from my skin as if the tattoo was 3D. Then the itching came, and the eczema. Next, red swollen patches of hives on untouched skin appeared nearby.

A quick Google search showed I was far from alone – thousands of people were sharing similar experiences with their old, but newly-irritated, body art. Why were none of us informed of the risks?

Dr Nisith Sheth, Consultant Dermatologist and tattoo removal specialist at London’s Cadogan Clinic, tells me he’s seen an increasing number of clients with skin conditions caused by tattoos. He explains this delayed response is known as a ‘granulomatous reaction’; a form of inflammation caused by a collection of immune cells. Granulomas form when the immune system attempts to wall-off substances it perceives as foreign, but is unable to eliminate them.

“Intolerance and allergies can develop at any time, even to substances or products the skin has tolerated for years,” Dr Sheth says. “The skin can become sensitised over time and the immune system then causes a reaction on the skin.”

Rosy Cherrington, SL Features Editor

If someone had warned me, I would never have let a tattoo gun come near me.

As for the issue of tattoos turning 3D – an extremely common phenomenon – he believes that, for the most part, this is due to the presence of scar tissue. This can fluctuate in appearance, becoming raised at times, and is influenced by hormonal, immunological and extrinsic factors (explaining why many people only experience it during hot weather, or eating spicy food).

However in rarer cases, it could be a symptom of sarcoidosis, a potentially serious and incurable disease. A chronic inflammatory condition that can affect multiple organs in the body (although it mainly affects the skin), sarcoidosis is characterised by inflammatory cells grouping together and forming small lumps, and can be caused by an immune system response to foreign particles.

According to the NHS, it’s still unclear what causes sarcoidosis to develop in any one individual, but an initial ‘trigger’ is likely to set off the sequence of events that lead to this specific type of immune system overactivity.

At present there’s no known cure for sarcoidosis. The aim of treatment is to suppress the disease activity, most commonly with potent steroid creams, steroid injections and – as a last resort – oral steroid medication. However not all patients with sarcoidosis require treatment, as symptom severity varies, and the disease can often ‘burn out’ – six out of ten sarcoidosis sufferers find their condition resolves itself with no treatment.

The most common trait of skin sarcoidosis is granulomatous lesions, but it can also cause fevers, night sweats, weight loss and fatigue, so it’s vital those experiencing symptoms see a GP or consultant dermatologist.

Tattoo inks and the pigments used in them aren’t regulated in any way.

Put off being inked yet? Things are about to get even scarier. Toxic components in tattoo ink have also been found to spread beyond the tattoo site and around the body in the form of nanoparticles, causing a number of dangerous health problems.

One woman contracted uveitis, a disease involving inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, after allergens from her swollen chest and back tattoos accumulated in her eyes. Another developed enlarged and ‘rubbery’ lymph nodes – that doctors at first suspected were a symptom of cancer – caused by an allergic reaction to her two healed tattoos. When one of the nodes was removed to be examined, it had been blackened by the ink.

Stained lymph nodes in tattooed people are common, and scientists believed this to be harmless. But new research, published in the journal Scientific Reports revealed something far more worrying.

"We already knew that pigments from tattoos would travel to the lymph nodes,” the study’s author explained. “What we didn't know is that they do it in a nano form, which implies that they may not have the same behaviour as the particles at a micro level.” This can lead to chronic enlargement of the lymph nodes and lifelong exposure to toxins, even if the tattoo is removed.

While evidence of the practice dates back thousands of years – think tattooed Egyptian mummies and ice age frozen corpses – experts are warning it’s the newer tattoo inks that could be causing complications. The composition of tattoo ink has changed dramatically over the past century, and dermatologists say there are still “many unknowns” about how these modern inks interact with the skin and within the body.

It’s also worth noting that tattoo inks and the pigments used in them aren’t regulated in any way. Under EU legislations, countless chemicals are banned in consumer products that get in direct contact with the skin – but tattoo inks don’t fall under these laws. In fact, they contain a number of substances that would be illegal to put in a moisturiser.

Last December, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) put forward a proposal to regulate tattoo inks and restrict the use of certain ingredients, in order to “reduce the risks caused by hazardous substances”. These substances include those classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic, skin sensitising, corrosive, irritant and eye-damaging, as well as impurities and other substances prohibited in cosmetic products under the Cosmetic Products Regulation.

Clearly, it’s a move that urgently needs to happen. But until it does, I’ll be staying well away from the tattoo gun – and encouraging others to do the same. Yes, you may like the way they look, but the truth is, right now they’re not safe and the risks just aren’t worth it.

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