Study raises concern about fake, substandard tattoo inks

Scientists in Belgium have found that almost a third of tattoo inks bought in the market did not meet established quality and safety standards, including new requirements that have just come into force in the EU.

The team from Sciensano, the Belgian Institute for Health, devised a screening based on a lab technique known as liquid chromatography with triple-quadrupole mass spectrometry (LC-QqQ-MS) to look for 40 substances of "high concern" in tattoo inks.

They purchased 86 samples of tattoo ink from online marketplaces, and found that 26 of them failed to meet Resolution ResAP standards, an initial attempt to set quality standards finalised in 2008.

Meanwhile, 25 failed to meet criteria laid out in the EU REACH legislation, which aims to improve the protection of human health and the environment from the risks that can be posed by chemical substances.

An amendment to REACH specifically covering acceptable levels of various substances in tattoo inks came into force on January 4.

Among the substances of greatest concern are the primary aromatic amines (PAAs) 5-nitro toluidine, a carcinogen also linked to liver dysfunction, and 4-chloroaniline, which is a known carcinogen as well as a skin sensitiser.

5-nitro toluidine above the permitted level of 5 μg/g was found in 16 samples, all of them having an unacceptable health risk with an average level of 29 μg/g, according to the researchers, who have published their findings in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.

Higher levels of 4-chloroaniline than allowed in the regulations were seen in four samples, although these were closer to the threshold limit of 5 μg/g.

"Interestingly the samples that turned out positive were most often brown-reddish, which are the colours that are most often associated with side effects," write the authors.

They note that counterfeit tattoo inks of inferior quality have also been found in the European market, which make it harder for purchasers to distinguish between high and low quality products.

In 2019, an Italian study found illegal tattoo inks adulterated with local anaesthetics at levels that could pose a serious health risk to people having larger tattoos.

"It is estimated that 12 per cent of the European population, or more than 60 million people, have one or more tattoos," according to the scientists.

"The new REACH restriction is a major challenge analytical challenge for producers that want to provide a compliant ink," they continue. "With over 4000 substances banned, screening methods are urgently needed."

Photo by Romina Farías on Unsplash

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