Home » Study Finds 35% of Tattoo Inks Sold in US Contaminated with Bacteria

Study Finds 35% of Tattoo Inks Sold in US Contaminated with Bacteria

by Richard A Reagan

A recent study has found that around 35% of tattoo and permanent makeup inks sold in the United States are contaminated with bacteria. 

This discovery raises significant concerns about the safety of these products and the health risks they pose to consumers.

Seong-Jae (Peter) Kim, a microbiologist at the National Center for Toxicological Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), led the research team that conducted this first-of-its-kind study. 

“Our findings reveal that unopened and sealed tattoo inks can harbor anaerobic bacteria, known to thrive in low-oxygen environments like the dermal layer of the skin, alongside aerobic bacteria,” Kim explained.

The research, published on July 2 in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, highlights the presence of both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria in commercial tattoo inks. 

Aerobic bacteria require oxygen to survive, while anaerobic bacteria do not. 

The study found that these bacteria can contaminate the inks even when they are sealed and unopened.

The researchers tested 75 tattoo inks from 14 different manufacturers and discovered that about 35% of these products were contaminated. 

This contamination poses a serious risk of infection to those receiving tattoos or permanent makeup. Infections caused by these bacteria can lead to complications such as rashes, lesions, and, in severe cases, permanent scarring.

Kim highlighted the importance of monitoring tattoo inks for microbial contaminants. 

“In light of our study results, we want to emphasize the importance of continuously monitoring these products to ensure the microbial safety of tattoo inks,” he said. 

The FDA considers tattoo inks to be cosmetics, which do not require premarket approval like drugs or medical devices. Although the pigments used in these inks are color additives subject to FDA approval, the agency has historically not regulated them.

The FDA has received numerous reports of infections resulting from contaminated tattoo inks. In 2019, the agency issued a safety alert after identifying six tattoo inks contaminated with bacteria. 

Last year, the FDA released draft guidance to help manufacturers and distributors recognize and prevent contamination from bacteria, mold, or other microorganisms.

The rising popularity of tattoos in recent years has coincided with an increase in tattoo-related complications. 

A Pew Research Center survey found that 32% of American adults have at least one tattoo, with 22% having more than one. Despite labels claiming sterility, Kim’s research revealed no clear link between these claims and the actual absence of bacterial contamination.

Beyond bacterial infections, other potential complications from tattoos include inflammatory reactions, allergic hypersensitivity, and toxic responses. 

Previous studies have found that a significant percentage of tattoo inks contain substances not listed on their labels, such as different pigments or unlisted additives. 

Some research has even suggested a potential link between tattoos and lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

Kim and his team plan to develop faster, more accurate, and less labor-intensive methods for detecting microbial contaminants in tattoo inks. 

As the popularity of tattoos continues to grow, consumers must be aware of the potential risks associated with contaminated inks

Continuous monitoring and stricter regulations are necessary to protect public health and ensure the safety of tattoo and permanent makeup products.

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