Why Governments Should Regulate Tattoo Inks
Fri, December 9, 2022

Why Governments Should Regulate Tattoo Inks

FDA considered inks used in tattoos as a part of cosmetic / Photo Credit: Shutterstock


What was once taboo is now a growing trend to express the self. Tattoos are taken as a form of telling one's story, their values, and their beliefs. It's a permanent reminder of who they are, etched on their skin.

But while more and more people are getting tattoos, along with growing societal acceptance, regulation in the industry has yet to progress. In countries like the US, the federal government doesn't put regulations on tattoo ink nor are there consistent oversight of tattoo shops and artists.

The lack of regulation puts clients at risk—even in the best circumstances.


Rare but real complications

In a 2018 worldwide survey, 38 percent of respondents said they have at least one tattoo—but most people aren't satisfied with just one. About 25 percent of the tattooed respondents said they have one while the remaining 75 percent said they have two or more, Berlin-based technology startup Dalia wrote for Medium, an online publishing platform.

The report also showed that people aged 30 to 49 have the highest rate of tattoos (45 percent) followed by young people aged 14 to 29 (32 percent), while people over 50 have the least (28 percent).

Still, the growing popularity of tattoos has yet to eliminate the stigma that surrounds it. This results in health disparities among tattooed individuals as tattoos also come with health risks that can lead to serious complications.



According to Time magazine, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received reports of 363 complications associated with tattoos from 2004 to 2016—largely due to tainted tattoo inks that cause skin reactions and blood-borne diseases.

Tattoos have also been linked to cancer, although there isn't enough evidence to prove that such claims are definite.

A 2018 research review found 30 cases of melanoma skin cancer that appeared in tattoos. While this study failed to prove that the tattoos were the cause of cancer, it was merely a coincidence that they overlapped with the diseased area, a 2015 case study detailed the story of a man who was diagnosed with melanoma in the areas where red tattoo ink was applied.

"That pattern suggested that his tattoo artist may have struck existing cancer with the red ink needle, then spread it to other parts of his skin while completing the design," Time magazine said.


Regulation for tattoos

The FDA doesn't have regulations for tattoos because it considers the inks used in them to be cosmetic. This means that they don't interfere with the industry unless they have identified a safety problem associated with the process "to prevent consumer illness or injury."

"The pigments used in the inks are color additives, which are subject to premarket approval under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," the agency said. "However, because of other competing public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety problems specifically associated with these pigments, FDA traditionally has not exercised regulatory authority for color additives on the pigments used in tattoo inks."



They concluded that local jurisdictions have the authority to regulate the actual practice of tattooing. While some states and cities implement ordinances to restrict tattoos on minors, not all of them require cosmetic artists to hold certificates or tattoo shops to be licensed.

CNN says that even if these entities are mandated to be licensed, the scarcity of inspectors makes it difficult to monitor shops to ensure that their equipment is clean and they always use clean, fresh needles in the procedure.

This scenario in the US is the complete opposite of South Korea, where tattoos are legal but getting one isn't.

Under Korean law, getting a tattoo is considered a medical service and therefore requires a qualified medical practitioner to do the process, according to travel and media startup The Culture Trip. Such a law ensures that the procedure is safe and that the client is free from harm, but it is also driving tattoo artists to operate in their homes or underground tattoo parlors.


Tightening limits

While the US has yet to regulate tattoos nationwide, Europe has made its move to restrict the chemicals used in tattoo inks. The proposal, which sought to limit the use of 4,000 chemicals, came after some substances used in tattoo inks were found to possibly cause cancer, change DNA, or complicate human reproduction.

Earlier this year, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), one of the bodies that submitted the proposal, said its committee for socio-economic analysis decided to adopt the limits on hazardous substances for tattoo inks.


Many countries worldwide have a higher number of people getting tattoed / Photo Credit: Shutterstock


"The proposal includes concentration limits for the substances within its scope," ECHA said in a March press release. "The aim of the restriction is to make inks for tattooing safer and protect people from serious health problems or effects."

The growing tattoo fad won't be stopping any time soon, which means that the risks that come with them will continue as well. This calls for governments to take action and ensure that those who are looking to get inked are safe from complications. Providing strict regulations for tattoo shops as well as the materials used in the procedure is a step towards providing that safety, along with eliminating the stigma attached to tattoos and spreading information on proper tattoo care.