Senior Matt Young studied different tattoo inks to determine the amount of metal they contained.
Matt Young | Courtesy

Millennial Americans are getting tattoos more than any age group in the country, but a Hillsdale College student’s research project suggests some tattoo inks may contain unsafe levels of certain metals.

A 2016 Harris poll found 47 percent of millennials have a tattoo, compared to only 29 percent of the population as a whole. Since the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate tattoo inks, many manufacturers are not transparent about the metals in their products.

Senior Matt Young said he decided to pursue a research project with Professor of Chemistry Mark Nussbaum due to the increasing popularity of tattoos and the lack of studies about toxic metals in tattoo inks.

“Tattoos seem to be a pretty prominent part of society now, and along with that, I wanted to get into doing research with metals and more inorganic materials,” Young said.

Nussbaum said he decided to start this research project with Young after reading in Chemical and Engineering News about the possibility of harmful chemicals in tattoo inks.

“There isn’t a lot of information available on the composition of tattoo inks since it hasn’t been regulated in the past,” Nussbaum said. “So, finding out what metals are present and at what levels is important and useful.”

Young said an Italian study led to regulations on tattoo inks in the European Union, but no one in the United States had published a study with suggestions for safe metal levels.

Young analyzed the inks for six metals: cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, and nickel.

The European Commission recommended tattoo inks should not contain more than 0.2 parts per million of chromium, 1 ppm of manganese, or 2 ppm of lead. Though parts per million is a small amount, these low levels of metal in tattoo inks may still pose a safety risk.

Young’s research suggested readily available tattoo inks in the United States greatly exceeded those levels. Young said ink from the Chinese manufacturer Solong Tattoo contains 15.4 ppm of manganese, a concentration he said is not potent but could lead to symptoms of manganese poisoning. He found the ink from the American manufacturer Eternal Ink contains 2.1 ppm of chromium.

He did not find elevated lead levels in the products he studied.

Young said he isn’t opposed to tattoos after his research, but consumers should inform themselves about what they’re putting on their bodies.

“Do research on your artists or personally ask them what brand of ink they’re using,” Young said. “That will give you a good idea of what sort of safety level you’re at. Even with something that is made in the U.S. that’s popular, you still don’t know for sure be cause it’s not regulated.”

Nussbaum said the FDA should ensure tattoo inks are safe.

“Any commercial product which is intended to be injected into the body, even if only under the skin, should be regulated, in my opinion,” he said. “The requirements for tattoo inks should be reasonable and based on known hazards, and it seems appropriate to me that the FDA, which regulates cosmetics, should also regulate the composition of tattoo inks.”

After trying several different methods, Young and Nussbaum finally discovered a method that worked. They diluted tattoo ink, put it over a flame, and used the interaction between the light of the flame and the dissolved metal to determine the metal’s concentration.

Young said it took two weeks to figure out how to get the tattoo ink to dissolve for further analysis.

“Matt did a very good job handling the frustration of dealing with a stubborn problem: how to get the tattoo inks dissolved in solution so that they could be tested in the flame atomic absorption instrument,” Nussbaum said. “That experience and the way he handled it, while not part of our original plans, will serve him in good stead as he interviews for laboratory positions in the real world, where troubleshooting and patient persistence are often necessary.”