Chemicals in tattoo inks FAQs

Some frequently asked questions about the tattoo inks used in Australia are answered here.

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What are tattoo inks?

Tattoo inks are mixtures of chemicals injected into the skin to create a coloured pattern. The inks are injected into the outer-most and second outer-most layers of the skin (epidermis and dermis).

What is the difference between artistic tattoos and cosmetic tattoos?

While artistic tattoos are applied as body art, cosmetic tattoos are aimed at replicating the effect of cosmetics like eye shadow or lip liner.

Are the inks used in cosmetic tattoos different from artistic tattoo inks?

Cosmetic tattoo inks may contain different chemicals to artistic tattoo inks, as the colours for each kind of tattoos are usually different. Cosmetic tattoo inks usually hold their colour in the skin for a shorter time.

What chemicals are used in tattoo inks in Australia?

The chemicals present in tattoo inks vary depending on the individual ink used. Tattoo inks can contain potentially harmful chemicals including metals (like arsenic and lead) and chemicals that can cause cancer or allergic reactions. It is not clear at this stage whether the amount of these chemicals present in tattoo inks is enough to harm the health of someone tattooed with them.

It is also possible for some of the chemical ingredients present in tattoo inks to break down to form potentially harmful chemicals under sunlight or during laser removal.

Can tattoo inks cause cancer?

There is no current scientific evidence to show tattoo application or removal causes cancer. However, chemicals capable of causing cancer have been found in some tattoo inks. It is not known at the moment whether this might increase the risk of cancer for someone who has been tattooed with these inks.

Are there any regulations for tattoo inks used by tattoo artists and beauticians?

Certain chemicals are not allowed to be present in tattoo inks by the Poisons Standard. Using these chemicals for tattooing may be an offence under state and territory laws which reference the Poisons Standard. Because tattoo inks are products used in tattoo parlours, tattoo artists and beauticians using them are bound by workplace health and safety legislation in their state or territory.

What is NICNAS doing to investigate the safety of tattoo inks?

The Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) recently analysed the chemicals used in tattooing inks in Australia. The results are published in a report ‘Characterisation of tattoo inks used in Australia’. In this report, NICNAS advised state and territory authorities to consider taking regulatory action for some tattoo inks. NICNAS also recommended that human health risks posed by certain chemicals present in tattoo inks be examined further.

What can I do to ensure my tattoo artist uses the safest possible tattoo inks?

Ask your tattoo artist about the inks being used in your tattoo. The tattoo ink bottles should NOT have labels saying they are unsuitable for tattooing and ideally should have a clear list of ingredients. The chemicals present in tattoo inks should not be prohibited for use in tattoo inks under the Poisons Standard. If you are concerned that a tattoo artist is using unsafe tattoo inks, please contact your state or territory health department.

Are there possible health complications when getting a tattoo?

The chemicals in tattoo inks can cause local skin reactions. Other health complications can also occur as a result of getting a tattoo. Health information about tattooing is available on the website of the Australian Government Department of Health.

If you notice a problem with your tattoo, please consult a doctor.

Who can I contact in my state or territory regarding chemicals prohibited in tattoo inks?

More information on tattoo ink chemicals regulated by the Poisons Schedule can be found by contacting state and territory poisons units listed on the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) website.

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Last update 29 July 2018