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.”