The Tattoo Taboo: Is That Star Really Lucky Or Just Carcinogenic?

Are tattoos compromising our health and possibly contributing to cancer growth? Studies say yes.

By Anna Hugoboom4 min read
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If you’ve considered getting a tattoo – be it a quote, a lucky star, or a cute flower – it’d be wise to pause and consider the potential complications beforehand in order to make an informed decision. After all, tattoos are meant to be permanent and etching ink into your skin has been shown to present some serious health concerns. 

With time and culture evolving, tattoos now don’t automatically mean “rebel.” While some people will debate how classy tattoos are, many people think they’re cool, sexy, or artsy, and those who sport tattoos often have them designed in quotes or symbols that are meaningful to them. With the increase of “tatted” celebrities in modern pop culture, tattoos have gained even more popularity and are worn by people all around the world.

The History of Tattoos

Tattoos emerged in Polynesian culture around 3,000 years ago, and they carried intentional social significance. Polynesian natives would wear tattoos that told stories of their culture as well as their individual identity and personality. Some historical findings show tattoos were also used in ancient civilizations in Asia and Europe. Ancient Greece would use them to mark slaves; Japan viewed tattoos as a spiritual practice that marked status; China would use them to brand criminals; the Roman military would tattoo soldiers (mainly mercenaries) to discourage deserters; and Celtic and Germanic tribes would decorate their warriors. Even in the Americas, among the Aztecs and the Mayans, the natives would often receive ritualistic tattoos after reaching the age of maturity, getting married, and gaining prowess in battle.

For a long time, tattoos were seen as somewhat “barbaric,” giving them a negative connotation for centuries which has lingered for many even in modern culture. Tattoos became more of an art form in Asia in the 17th century, and exploring European sailors began to adopt the decorative practice once they discovered the indigenous Polynesian tribes in the 18th century. In the 19th century United States, it became common for sailors and soldiers to adopt the tatt decor, and the 1940s saw a Golden Age of tattoos due to the patriotic view toward soldiers fighting in WWII, ending with tattoos being firmly established in society in the 1950s.

Not So Lucky

The New York Post says, “Think before you ink,” with good reason because that lucky star could actually be more harmful than lucky. Medical studies show that tattoos are indeed carcinogenic and can be extremely harmful to the body. It doesn’t take a scientific health expert to see that tattoo ink has been chemicalized into a far cry from its native origins. Tattoos used to be made with natural, earthy ingredients such as soot, charcoal, and minerals with plant pigments, but now the tattoo ink is full of harmful contaminants like heavy metals, lead, mercury, cobalt sulfate, arsenic, and beryllium, to just name a few – all which can cause cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and cardiovascular, liver, kidney, and bone diseases.

Toxic chemicals in the ink dye are being absorbed through your skin into your body and bloodstream – mercury, cobalt sulfate, carbon black, and cadmium are especially carcinogenic to humans. Just one of the chemicals found in black tattoo inks, benzo(a)pyrene, is a potent carcinogen that has caused skin cancer in animal tests. This pollution exposure is especially concerning for those who have tattoos on their skin near vital organs like the head/face, chest, and lower back. 

The more tattoos you decorate your skin with, the more poison you present to your body.

And besides the actual ingredients, the modern process of tattooing itself puts you more at risk of contracting diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis C because of possible exposure to contaminated tools. Plus, your skin is your largest organ, whose job is to be the external filtration system for your internal body, especially your liver. Tattooing makes your skin susceptible to multiple skin problems, including rashes and allergies, and it can reduce your ability to sweat properly, which can create a complication for your body’s ability to detox through the skin. Basically, tattoo ink is slowly poisoning your system, and the more tattoos you decorate your skin with, the more poison you present to your body. 

Hormonal Concerns

Additionally, those chemicals in tattoo ink have been shown to cause endocrine diseases and hormonal imbalances, such as a chronic increase in cortisol (the stress hormone). This hormonal disruption is not good news for fertility. New studies show that tattoos can cause mutagenic and reproductive toxic effects. If you’re planning on getting pregnant or are currently pregnant, it is advisable to not get tattoos so that you don’t expose your baby growing inside you to the chemical toxicity. 

Speaking of which, if it’s not advisable to get tattoos while you’re pregnant, that goes to show that the process of chemical exposure leaking toxins into your internal system is well known. So why aren’t adults more concerned, or the government…?

Where’s the FDA?

Studies show almost half of all tattoo inks in the United States contain cancer-causing chemicals, while most tattoo artists aren’t even sure what ingredients are in the ink they use. The EU issued a ban on two common green and blue inks after finding they contained hazardous chemicals. Surprisingly, tattoo ink ingredients do not have to be approved by the FDA for use, even though the ink contains toxic chemicals that are absorbed through the skin pores into the body. It’s interesting that we have safety-approved stamps all over other cosmetic items like lotion because that gets absorbed into the body, but not for something that’s permanently on your skin. 

If there are health hazards due to chemical toxicity, why hasn’t the FDA been more concerned or taken preventative action like the EU? Maybe this has something to do with the $1.6 billion tattoo industry in the U.S., which is projected to keep rising. 

Aesthetic Regret

Besides learning about the concerning health risks, what if you just outgrow your tattoo, figuratively and literally? What if you gain or lose muscle in that area? Inevitably, when you get older your skin eventually changes anyway, so the image is likely to look distorted. Or maybe you change your mind about a quote or image you're loving at the moment. Haven't we all? 

A full 63% of the general population consider tattoos unprofessional.

Tattoos can also impact your career. What if you have a tattoo in a conspicuous area that might present a concern for a professional job interview? A full 63% of the general population (80% in those 55 years old and up) consider tattoos unprofessional, especially in noticeable areas like the face and neck (although there are other areas you can easily cover up). It’s all very well if you plan on doing an artsy profession, are a musician, or a well-known celebrity whose income won't be impacted, but there are still many traditional companies that discourage and even prohibit visible tattoos. 

Even celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, and Ariana Grande, have expressed regret over their tattoos (although likely not for job-related reasons), and some have tried to alter or remove those tattoos that linked them to their exes. Similarly, Eva Longoria had all four of her tats removed, and she warned young people that it hurts to get them on, but it hurts even worse to take them off!

Closing Thoughts

If you’ve thought about getting inked, maybe it’d be a good idea to scratch the itch and “try it out” with a fake tattoo for fun. This way, it’s sure to come off eventually, the cost is much cheaper, and you won’t have toxic chemicals constantly leaking into your skin and messing up your hormones or increasing your susceptibility to cancer. We have enough pollutants in our environment messing up our systems as it is, so no need to add to the problem with cutesy carcinogens.

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