TATTOO safety is an obvious concern, but tattoo inks – some of which contain heavy metals, allergens, and possible carcinogens – are not regulated in the United States, EU, and elsewhere. With the explosion in tattoo popularity in recent decades, Federal health departments worldwide are finally taking notice and beginning to work with tattoo stakeholders (tattooists, pigment manufacturers, tattoo media, etc.) to develop standards and regulations that will benefit all members of the tattoo community.

The safety of chemicals used in tattoos was examined at the 1st International Conference on Tattoo Safety at the Free University of Berlin, 6-7 June, 2013. Organized by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), I was afforded the opportunity to present the keynote lecture on the history of indigenous tattoos with special reference to pigments to start the proceedings.

Concerns over the safety of the chemicals are increasing in Europe (and elsewhere). In May 2013, Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was holding a tender for companies to bid for the opportunity to create a campaign on the risks associated with tattoo inks. The country, which will ban the use of carcinogenic chemicals in tattoo inks from 1 January 2014, has also called for a ban in Europe.

After the Berlin conference, the German (BfR) called for a reduction, or even elimination, of nickel used in tattoos. As nickel is highly sensitizing, people with a nickel allergy who get a tattoo can develop severe lesions, according to the BfR. The organization says it is hard to collect data on nickel allergies caused by tattoos, or the use of permanent make-up, since there are no reporting requirements on the issue in Germany.

Moreover, the effects on the human body of many of the substances that may be used in tattooing and permanent make-up are not clear. The BfR has developed criteria for safety testing of substances used in tattooing. Thus, it is always important to speak with your tattooist about the pigment products they use. Although it is widely recognized that most tattoo inks do not carry detailed content labels (like food products in the USA), perhaps this would be a logical next step?