Hello all, I've been studying the photochemistry of tattoos - my team has been investigating the particle size and molecular composition of tattoo pigments using Raman spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and electron microscopy. Currently, we're in the process of analyzing popular tattoo ink brands - the resultant information will be collated and added to the website "What's in My Ink". As of now, we've confirmed the presence of ingredients that aren’t listed on some labels. For example, 23 out of 56 different inks analyzed to date suggest the presence of an azo-containing dye. Although many azo pigments do not cause health concerns when they are chemically intact, bacteria or ultraviolet light can degrade these into another nitrogen-based compound that is a potential carcinogen.

In August 2022, my work was featured in Interesting Engineering, and the publication helped organize this AMA session. Ask me anything about what goes into tattoo inks and how one can make informed decisions before getting a tattoo, and understand the accuracy of the provided information.

2 pm EST: Thanks everyone for participating and for the questions! Unfortunately, I have to run to a meeting but I enjoyed getting to share a little bit about our work. -JRS

PROOF: https://i.redd.it/98l5vxo4mj0a1.jpg

Comments: 109 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

laughlines108 karma

Hey John! Albany tattoo shop owner here. Two questions.

Are you looking at the difference between the EU certified inks and US brands that choose not to certify, or feature different product lines for the continents? Ex. Dynamic

Second, do you have thoughts or a goal on how your research can be used to improve industry or product standards?

intengineering151 karma

We haven't differentiated really between EU and US inks. Most of what we've looked at are what is available in the US and the same product seems to be available overseas. In chatting with ink manufacturers, my sense is that they don't really have alternatives to many of the banned pigments (e.g., blues and greens) and will likely just pull those inks from the market.

In terms of industry, a major project we are working on right now is just understanding what's in the ink bottle versus whats on the label (if it is labeled). We are finding a pretty high number of discrepancies, some of which are probably minor (e.g., using ethyl alcohol instead of the listed isopropyl alcohol) but in other cases we are finding different pigments in the bottles or one additive swapped for another. As a starting point, a complete and accurate listing of ink ingredients seems like an important first step. -JRS

server_busy79 karma

Is this project funded by a grant or is it driven by the body art industry?

intengineering138 karma

Our work is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. We don't receive any material or financial support from the body art industry. -JRS

PoutinePower64 karma

So it’s 50/50 chance my tattoos can be carcinogenic? Would applying sunscreen prevent the UV degradation?

intengineering111 karma

We honestly don't know the definitive answer on carcinogenicity but certainly the pigments used in tattoo inks have real concerns associated with them. Definitely applying sun screen can't hurt since UV degradation is a real and not understood pathway. For someone who is very concerned, keeping tattoos covered in general is probably the safest bet since we also don't understand how visible light can impact degradation. -JRS

baltikorean44 karma

Favorite spiedie place?

intengineering32 karma

Lupos. -JRS

FlexasState44 karma

If we want to avoid more carcinogenic prone ink, how should we ask our tatto artists? “Hey do you have X type ink? I heard ink with Y ingredients can be harmful later?”

Also do you have a tattoo? Why or why not?

intengineering56 karma

Unfortunately, because we don't understand the potential carcinogenicity of the pigments it's a hard question to answer. One thing that I don't think most folks understand is that pretty much all tattoo inks use a common set of pigments. The difference between "good" and "poor" inks appears to be in the processing and additives. -JRS

intengineering29 karma

Thanks everyone for participating and for the questions! Unfortunately, I have to run to a meeting but I enjoyed getting to share a little bit about our work.


evocon1523 karma

Do you have any tattoos?? :)

intengineering46 karma

I don't but that has more to do with very few of my friends having tattoos when I was growing up and in my 20s. I have nothing against tattoos but they never felt like a priority for me. -JRS

beth_at_home21 karma

I've had my tattoos for over 40 years, should I be looking for anything on my blood work, or actual skin?

intengineering43 karma

We honestly don't know and that's part of the challenge. We don't actually know what we SHOULD be looking for with tattoos since we understand so little about their interactions with the body and their mechanisms of breakdown. Hopefully our work and the work of others can start to identify what we should be looking for. -JRS

dont_shoot_jr16 karma

What are the chances you become Binghamton University’s second Nobel prize team?

intengineering17 karma

Probably slim! -JRS

inkyspearo14 karma

what brands are you testing? is your main goal to establish safety protocols, or make tattoos last longer/look better over time?

intengineering44 karma

We've spent some time talking to artists to identify what are considered good, major brands and what are considered poor brands. Until we publish the data, hopefully in the next couple months, we are a little reluctant to share specific brands until everyone, manufacturers included, can look at and review our data.

In terms of goals, our main goal is to empower artists and consumers. We aren't anti-tattoo but we want folks to understand what the potential risks are and are not and then make a personal choice. Hopefully, that leads to better labeling and manufacturing protocols, which may enhance the safety. In terms of tattoo stability over time, understanding the basic science of tattoos and how they degrade I think is necessary first step in making longer lasting tattoos. -JRS

HappyJaguar10 karma

Are you using any extractions or separation chemistry? I would assume the spectra are quite complex upon direct analysis.

intengineering19 karma

We use a variety of chromatography techniques, electron microscopy, X-ray fluorescence, and others to evaluate the inks. You are correct that they are quite complex so step one is often just separating the components with something like distillation to simplify the analysis. -JRS

elmonoenano9 karma

What do you think the likelihood of getting a black ink that stays black? Or at least more black than current inks?

When we get tattoos should be getting the tradenames of the ink to see if unlisted ingredients pop up in the fortune?

intengineering20 karma

Black inks are pretty interesting and it's not 100% clear to me why they "blue." My best guess (and I emphasize this is a guess) is that because the particle sizes in black inks tend to be very small that it's easier for the pigment to diffuse out away from where the ink was embedded. Very small particles scatter blue light and take on a blue-ish tint and so I speculate that might be what's happening here as you move away from the embedded black ink and have a "dilute" concentration of black pigment.

I would definitely encourage folks to get whatever data they can about the inks in their tattoos and hang onto the info. At a minimum, allergic reactions are a known issue with tattoos and can crop up long after tattooing. One big challenge we have is figuring out what the specific allergens are since we don't know 1) what ink was used and 2) what was in the inks. We hope our work can help address #2. If people keep better records of the inks that were used that would go a long way towards addressing #1. -JRS

Inorganic_or_bust8 karma

What techniques are you using to determine metal composition? Are most pigments organic or inorganic or both?

intengineering17 karma

Right now for quantitative purposes, microwave digestion and ICP-MS. For more qualitative purposes, X-ray fluorescence and/or EDAX. Most of the colored pigments are "organic" or molecular. There are some exceptions like iron oxides in browns and some reds. Black pigments are mostly carbon black and white is most TiO2 or barium sulfate, which would be considered "inorganic" or solid pigments. -JRS

fwutocns6 karma

A tattoo on my lower back (right side) is the only one that itches and gets raised every so often. Once, what seemed like a hardened ink grain came out of the tattoo when I was lotioning it (i thought it was a hive)... ! Am I allergic to something? I had existing tattoos with no reaction before getting this and have gotten more after this with no problem.

intengineering7 karma

I'm not a medical doctor so I can't say for sure but it sounds like you are having a reaction to something in the tattoo and should maybe talk to a dermatologist. Since we don't know what causes allergic reactions in some tattoos it's entirely possible that you are allergic to some pigment in the problem tattoo and that the pigment is present in other your other tattoos. However, that's only speculation on my part. -JRS

badwhiskey633 karma

Hey you may want to cross post this over at u/Binghamtonuniversity. What is the follow up for this study?

intengineering9 karma

Short term, publish the results. Longer term, understand what the pigments fragment into and how mobile they are. Understand if heavy metal contaminants can become mobile from embedded inks. Also, trying to understand how pigments interact with skin cells in terms of toxicity and viability and how light might alter that picture. -JRS