Tattooing Causes Nano-Sized Particles of Ink to Lodge in the Lymph Nodes

New evidence shows that organic and inorganic pigments and toxic impurities from tattoo ink are transported through the body after application to the skin.

Before getting a tattoo, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about the design and colors, where you want it on your body, and which tattoo artist you trust to do the job. You don’t often think about the chemical composition of the tattoo ink, but new research published in the journal Scientific Reports says it’s something you should consider.

Scientists from Germany and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France found that nanoparticles from tattoo ink travel inside the body, eventually reaching the lymph nodes.

“We investigated skin and lymph node samples of deceased donors and used X-rays from the particle accelerator in Grenoble to study the [tattoo ink] elements and their distribution in the tissues,” Ines Schreiver, lead author and an ESRF scientist, told Seeker. “This method allowed us to investigate particle sizes down to 50 nanometer resolution.”

This is the first analytical evidence showing that both the organic and inorganic pigments and toxic impurities from tattoo ink are transported through the body after its application to the skin.  

The chemical composition of the ink plays a big role. Tattoo ink is normally made from organic compounds but it also contains preservatives and contaminants like cobalt, chromium, manganese, or nickel. The second most common ingredient in tattoo ink, after carbon black, is titanium dioxide (TiO2), which is used to achieve different shades of color. TiO2 is also used in food preservatives, sun screen, and paint. White tattoos often take longer to heal and can cause the skin to become itchy, largely due to the prevalence of TiO2 in white tattoo ink. 

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Schreiver and her team observed that the particles were transported to the lymph nodes, something they were previously aware of because lymph node tissue often becomes tinted with ink color after a person gets a tattoo.

“From studies with other particles of similar size it is known that particles reach the lymph nodes on short term,” Schreiver said, pointing out that this is the body’s attempt at cleaning the wound caused by a tattoo. “In the tattoo research community it is currently assumed that the main transport of pigments will occur within the first days and weeks after tattooing, which is the same time period necessary for wound healing.”

What was unknown prior to the analysis is ink travels in nanoparticle form. Particles of varying size were found inside the human skin that was tested, but only nanoparticles traveled all the way to the lymph nodes. This is somewhat concerning given the known tattoo-related health risks.

“There are very rare cases of lymphedema caused by tattoo particle-related clogging of the lymphatic drainage and in cases of severe allergic reactions leading to skin necrosis, the lymph nodes can be effected as well,” Schreiver said. 

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Whether these cases are directly linked to nano-sized pigments or tattoo pigments generally is not known, but the smaller particles raise a red flag.

“In general, the smaller the particles are, the easier they might be transported inside the body, most likely also to other internal organs,” Schreiver commented.

The next step will be to examine the skin of people who have experienced adverse effects from tattoos and examine whether their condition is connected to the chemical composition of the tattoo ink. 

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