Why You Should Never Get a Tattoo (And What to Do If You Already Have One)

Despite the title of this article, my intention is not to dictate your choices. I respect everyone’s free will, and, frankly, I am indifferent to the decisions people make regarding their bodies. What matters to me is providing information that can assist individuals in making well-informed decisions so that they can create a healthier, more harmonious life for themselves.

Now, let’s delve into the topic of tattoos.

The word “tattoo” is derived from the Polynesian word “tatu” or “tatau,” meaning “puncture or mark made on skin.” The word itself mimics the rhythmic tapping sound produced by the traditional tools (like bone comb) used in the process of tattooing.

Personally, I find the idea of creating permanent marks on the skin to be unwise, especially when it involves injecting harmful substances into the dermis (the second layer of the skin, located beneath the exterior layer, or epidermis). That said, to each their own.

Growing up in the 90s, tattoos were a taboo topic. Society collectively looked down upon those with man-made body marks, which were typically limited almost exclusively to criminals, drug addicts, and those perceived as socially undesirable. The perception of tattoos as symbols of stigma can be tracked back to ancient Greece, where the term “stigma” was coined. In fact, in ancient Greek, the word for tattoo was “dermatostiksia”—a combination of “derma,” meaning “skin” or “hide,” and “stigma,” referring to marks on the body often linked to delinquency and aspects of moral disapproval.

In ancient Greece, tattooing was chiefly used punitively on captives, slaves, criminals, deserters, and prisoners of war. Offenses were sometimes inked into visible locations on the body to continue punishment even after release. As a result, society, especially the upper echelons thereof, regarded tattoos with great contempt. In contemporary times, this sentiment is considered antiquated and no longer holds true in many places in the West. The historical association of tattoos with deviant and marginalized populations has mostly faded (pun intended), and tattooing has transformed into a widely accepted form of self-expression and fashion. Nonetheless, there are countries (e.g., Japan, South Korea, China, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Türkiye, Egypt) where tattoos are still stigmatized to varying extents and not universally embraced.

I often jest that back in the day it was the folks with tattoos who stood out, whereas now it’s the opposite—those without tattoos are the ones standing out. (With over 100 million Americans, or 32% of the population having tattoos, this won’t be an exaggeration much longer.)

Confessedly, at 16, I once contemplated getting a small tattoo on my arm. Today, as an adult, I am glad I didn’t succumb to that fleeting impulse, as my perspectives have significantly evolved with the passage of time due to the acquisition of knowledge and experience (wisdom).

The tattooing process, which involves piercing the skin up to 3000 times per minute, inflicts profound trauma on the body, which responds accordingly. The moment the needle punctures the skin to inject the ink—comprising a multitude of harmful foreign substances—it initiates a wound, triggering an inflammatory response. This response is the body’s attempt to eliminate the foreign substance.

I suspect that hardly anyone who decides to get a tattoo takes the time to investigate the substances that will be injected into their bodies, and that will remain therein for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, I would venture to say that only a tiny fraction of tattoo artists are truly informed about the composition of the ingredients they introduce into their clients’ skin. (It is worth noting that tattoo inks fall under the category of “cosmetics” and do not undergo regulation prior to entering the market.)

Composition of tattoo ink

Tattoo ink generally consists of pigments, solvents, binders, and additives (including preservatives).

The ink can contain both organic and inorganic pigments. Inorganic pigments typically include iron oxide, titanium dioxide, chromium oxide, carbon black, and barium sulfate. These contain heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, zinc, arsenic, and nickel. Red, orange, green, blue, and yellow inks contain higher levels of copper, cadmium, chromium, nickel, zinc, and titanium, which are used as colorants. Red ink contains mercury and cadmium; yellow inks contains lead, zinc, and cadmium; green inks contain lead, copper, and chromium; white ink contains lead, barium, and zinc; green and blue ink contain aluminum, titanium, iron, and copper. These metals induce oxidative stress and damage cellular structures by promoting the generation of free radicals (oxidants), which frequently lead to allergies, increased inflammation, and various systemic issues.

Organic pigments are typically made of azo pigments and polycyclic compounds. When the former are injected into the skin, they break down into substances known as “primary aromatic amines” (PAAs), which are classified as carcinogens by numerous international agencies. PAAs are also sometimes present directly in ink as contaminants.

When it comes to black tattoo inks, their primary component is carbon black (Group B2 carcinogen), a soot produced through the incomplete combustion of petroleum products. Caron black is frequently contaminated with toxic chemicals stemming from partial burning of things like gasoline, coal, and crude oil. These chemicals are called “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs) and include benzo[a]pyrene, identified as the most potent human carcinogen (Group 1). PAHs possess mutagenic/genotixic properties (cause damage to DNA) and destabilize mitochondria, thereby elevating the risk of cancer. Moreover, these injurious materials are phototoxic, meaning that when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight or tanning beds, PAHs absorb it, intensifying their carcinogenic potential. Additionally, tattoos may interact with MRI scans and cause irritation and burns. Other toxicants that can be found in carbon black include benzophenone, hexamethylenetetramine and hexachlorobutadiene. Similar to PAHs, these compounds are genotoxic and can stimulate abnormal cell growth, contributing to the development of cancer.

Solvents in tattoo ink are used for dissolving pigments and binding agents. Common solvents include Isopropyl alcohol, glycerin, ethanol, polyols, propylene glycol.

Then there are binding agents, which are added to inks to maintain the consistency of pigment particles in order to prevent settling or separation. The purpose of binders is to create a uniform and workable mixture for easier application. Inks often incorporate binders like polyester, shellac, polyvinylpyrrolidone, and polyethylene glycol.

Lastly, there are additives and preservatives. These include sorbic acid, dehydroacetic acid, phenol, methylchloroisothiazolinone, o- phenylphenol, dehydroacetic acid, phenoxyethanol, formaldehyde, methylisothiazolinone, benzoic acid, and benzisothiazolinone, surfacants, and thixotropic agents.

In addition to the toxic effects I mentioned earlier, the chemicals injected deep into the skin during the tattooing process can compromise the neurological, immune, cardiovascular, and reproductive functions, and cause developmental harm. They exhibit toxicity towards critical organs like the heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, kidneys, and bones, thereby posing a long-term risk of cancer in these areas. The chemicals, in particular, amplify the susceptibility to immune-related cancers like Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (which has become increasingly common), as well as malignant melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin.

Tattoos also disrupt the sweat glands, impeding proper skin perspiration and, consequently, affecting the body’s temperature regulation. Additionally, tattoo ink interferes with the crucial process of expelling toxins and impurities through the skin via sweating, one of the body’s primary detoxification channels.

Tattoo ink contains pigment particles of varying sizes. The smaller particles (nanoparticles) can penetrate membranes, cross the blood-tissue barrier, and enter various organs, including the kidneys, liver, lungs, and even the brain, where they generate oxidative stress, inflammation, and toxin-induced cell death. Additionally, these particles deposit and accumulate in the lymphatic channels/nodes, often causing allergy symptoms (itching, swelling, sneezing, eye redness, etc.) and contributing to systemic autoimmune conditions. Due to their high bioavailability, the genotoxic and carcinogenic potential of these smaller pigments is particularly elevated.

Given the potential serious risks associated with tattooing, it would be prudent to reconsider “getting inked” (if you are considering it). If you have already adorned your skin, you might strongly consider periodically detoxifying your organ tissues by purifying and cleansing the lymphatic system. Doing so can help facilitate the elimination of heavy metals and the numerous carcinogenic and mutagenic compounds found in tattoo ink from the body.

Consuming herbs such as cilantro, parsley, chlorella, kelp, and gotu kola, along with activated charcoal (sourced from organic materials) can also greatly aid in removing heavy metals, including lead, mercury, aluminum, arsenic, and cadmium from the system. Drinking freshly-pressed (raw) organic juices containing cilantro and parsley is highly recommended. In cases of severe heavy metal toxicity, you may want to consider chelation therapy.

Embracing a diet rich in antioxidant foods can help counteract the deleterious effects of toxic tattoo ink compounds, including oxidative stress/damage, inflammation, and cellular damage. Excellent sources of antioxidants include berries (wild blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries), nuts (especially walnuts, pecans, chestnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, macadamias, and pine nuts), seeds (especially sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and hemp seeds), cherries, grapes, pomegranates, artichokes carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, citrus fruits, and herbs like green tea, oregano, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, thyme, rosemary, and sage.

Eating only or primarily organic foods, especially raw (uncooked), is crucial for reducing the toxic load on the body.

In conclusion, while the decision to get a tattoo is a personal choice, it is crucial to be well-informed about the potential health risks associated with tattooing and to be aware of the methods of minimizing these risks if your skin has already been saturated with the harmful elements.

2 Comments

  1. Mia Smith

    Although this contains valuable information, it still feels very opinionated and leaning towards what you believe is right or wrong. You never mentioned the sacred , spiritual aspect of cultures such as the Polynesian, Japanese, New Zealand and even African cultures, where tattoos are NOT a taboo and symbolize tribalism and culture. This practice have been around for centuries and I’m sure they weren’t using those chemicals in the sacred practice then as they aren’t now in the same sacred spaces. I will take what resonates, which is the detox information, but that could’ve been given without the biased opinion on tattoos.

    1. Akin Olokun

      I appreciate your feedback, Mia. “Right” and “wrong” are largely subjective. What I stated is not based on belief but facts. I did opine that making lasting marks on the body is unwise (which does not necessarily mean “wrong”), particularly in the context of modern, toxin-laden tattoos. Although I extend a similar sentiment to scarification and other physically intrusive cultural practices—no matter how “sacred” or “spiritual”—that subject the body to unnecessary stress or trauma. Being of Yoruba descent myself, some of my own family members have been permanently scarred by tribal marks in the name of rituals based on bizarre beliefs. I do not romanticize any culture or tradition since they are all creations of man. However, I do respect the elements of cultures/traditions that adhere to the boundaries of reason.

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