Lack of regulation for tattoo ink poses health risk, says Western University researcher

Canada should have stronger legislation for tattoo ink, says a Western University professor in London, Ont., who led a study in Sweden that analyzed dozens of ink samples from suppliers and online retailers.

Cheap tattoo inks available online can cause lifelong problems, says prof who led study in Sweden

A study led by Western University researcher Yolanda Hedberg has found most tattoo inks available online in Canada fail to meet Europe's legislative standards. (Stephanie Kelly/CBC)

Canada should have stronger legislation for tattoo ink to ensure safer standards, says a Western University professor in London, Ont., who led a study in Sweden that analyzed dozens of ink samples. 

The study involving Yolanda Hedberg, the university's research chair in corrosion science, analyzed 73 tattoo ink samples collected from suppliers and online retailers.

Many of the inks were fabricated in the United States and are available for purchase in Canada.   

Ninety-three per cent of the samples violated European legislative standards, which require manufacturers to include vital information on the packaging. Much of that information — sterility, batch numbers, expiry instructions, contact information of the manufacturer — was missing. 

Hedberg said 20 of the 73 inks, bought from the same website, had the same list of ingredients despite being different colours and solutions. 

Skin reactions such as chronic contact eczema can occur up to 10 years after ink has been injected under the skin, according to Hedberg. (Photo taken by Meagan Constantineau)

The study compared what was actually in the tattoo ink to what was written on the flask, and tested the levels of impurities and heavy metals. 

"Fifty per cent of all the tattoo inks we analyzed were declaring at least one pigment wrong," Hedberg said.

"They more often didn't write the pigment in the ingredients list that was actually discussed to be banned in Europe, or that was already prohibited, so they omitted that on the ingredient list, but they still had it in. And it was much more seldom the other way around where you actually had a pigment written there that was prohibited, but it was not in the ink." 

Where Europe is only beginning to develop regulations on ink, Hedberg said Canada has "absolutely nothing." And the inconsistency between ingredients and ingredient labels poses a threat to consumers.

"Just be careful."

Skin reactions such as chronic contact eczema can occur up to 10 years after ink — especially red ink, which contains sensitizers — has been injected under the skin. It's impossible to remove dangerous chemicals, even with laser treatments. 

"I like to stick to name-brand inks," said Michael Grisbrook, an instructor at the Tattoo & Piercing School of Canada.

"An ink brand, Eternal, the ink that I use, is manufactured here in Canada, and it's a very, very good brand. It does have to be a water-based ink, not just because oil-based is illegal, but a lot of oil-based inks have chemicals in them that are carcinogenic. I would never use an ink that would be possibly dangerous working on a client." 

Grisbrook said that, unfortunately, there are tattoo artists who may not feel the same way. It's likely, he said, that some may opt to buy the cheaper, less reputable brands available online to save money. 

He agreed Canada's legislation should be changed to ensure safer industry practices. 

"I think that artists should be made to use quality inks, and inks that are safe to put into your client, rather than have the option of just abusing any ink that they have. Let's say you're getting a coloured tattoo tomorrow — how do you know what kind of ink is that? How do you know if that's good-quality ink or some cheap watered-down ink that [the artist] should not be using? Maybe they should be forced to show the ink they're showing." 

Hedberg said Canadians who haven't experienced reactions to tattoo ink should consider themselves lucky. But she advised a word of caution just the same. 

"They are changing the substances all the time, and you can't be sure that there are actually substances in there other than what is written," she said. "That means you're never really safe even if you already have proven for yourself that you are not reacting to tattoos you already got. Just try to be careful."