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Red Alert: Study Shows Possible Link Between Ink and Chronic Skin Irritation

Everyone who has ever been tattooed knows that you start thinking about the next one before you have even removed the wrap from the last one. As you sit and ponder your next piece of ink a new survey has revealed that you might want to put a lot of thought into which colors you choose for reasons other than aesthetics—red ink is more likely to cause chronic skin issues for months or even years after being tattooed.

Dermatologists from the NYU Langone Medical Center surveyed 300 random tattooed people in Central Park during the month of June 2013. What they found is quite interesting, although we have to wonder about how much weight to put into those findings (more on that later). Of the 300 people surveyed as many as 6 percent reported that they had experienced skin issues with the tattoo in the form of swelling, skin rashes, and severe itching that lasted longer than four months.

The most interesting takeaway from the study is how the color of the ink correlated with the existence of chronic skin complications. Of all of the people who had skin issues 44 percent of them had red ink in their work, while only 36 percent of all of surveyed had red in their tattoos. Conversely only 33 percent of chronic cases could be attributed to black ink while over 90 percent of the tattooed people had black in their work.

Dr. Mary Leger believes that part of the reason for the majority of theses cases could be a lack of regulation about what exactly tattoo ink is made of. "It is not yet known if the reactions being observed are due to chemicals in the ink itself or to other chemicals, such as preservatives or brighteners, added to them, or to the chemicals' breakdown over time," Leger says in the report. "The lack of a national database or reporting requirements also hinders reliable monitoring."

The majority of people within the tattoo industry would likely welcome stricter regulations over the ingredients of tattoo ink. While the image of tattooists is strongly rooted in the idea of rebellion and counterculture, no tattooist is going to want to cause long-term health issues for their clients. Much like with how sanitation requirements within shops have been embraced by the entire industry one would think that if something could be done with the ingredients of ink to eliminate problems moving forward that it would be something that everyone would do eagerly.

That being said, before you become too afraid to get a tattoo there are a few flaws that need to be pointed out in the study. The NYU study was not conducted in a doctor’s office, it was done by randomly surveying people in Central Park. Therefore we do not have any of the medical history of the people who were surveyed. For example, they may have had eczema or a different skin condition that made them more prone to skin rashes in the first place. We do not know if the person was tattooed in a shop or if they gave themselves a stick and poke after one too many drinks in their bathroom. Did the skin conditions require a doctor’s visit or was it merely something an Advil or two took care of? There are a lot of things to be considered that we feel that the breadth of this survey didn’t cover, so one shouldn’t be too quick to jump to definitive conclusions.

The findings of this survey were interesting enough that Leger plans to conduct further research in order to find out some more information about what exactly is causing chronic skin conditions in some tattooed people. Leger plans on looking into which dyes, like the red ones already mentioned, are more prone to cause irritation as well as taking a look into any other factors that could cause the problems.

Hopefully Leger’s research will help the tattoo industry do what needs to be done to insure that no one ends up with a tattoo they regret. Regret for medical reasons, that is. No amount of research would be able to convince some people that it’s a bad idea to get that dreaded name tattoo.

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