Editorial Feature

Nanoparticles from Tattoo Ink Travel Inside the Body

Tattoos are becoming a more visible part of everyday life, but how much is known about the effect a tattoo might have on the body?

Of course, tattoos are permanent, effectively scarring the body for life. Many people put a lot of thought into where to get their body art – both in terms of position on the body and the parlor it is carried out in – but perhaps less considered is the composition of the ink which makes up the artwork.

Now for the first time, a team of Researchers from France and Germany have provided analytical evidence that elements making up tattoo ink travel inside the body in micro and nano particle forms, and reach the lymph nodes. Their work, published in Scientific Reports, shows various organic and inorganic pigments and toxic element impurities can move through the body. They have also provided in-depth characterization of the pigments ex vivo in tattooed tissues.

When someone wants to get a tattoo, they are often very careful in choosing a parlor where they use sterile needles that haven´t been used previously. No one checks the chemical composition of the colors, but our study shows that maybe they should.

Hiram Castillo, One of the Authors and Scientist, the European Synchrotron in France

Little is known about the potential impurities in the colored inks applied to the skin. Most inks contain organic pigments, as well as preservatives and contaminants like nickel, chromium, manganese or cobalt. The hazards that potentially stem from tattoos have only been investigated by chemical analysis of the inks and their degradation products in vitro.

Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is the second most common ingredient found in tattoo inks after carbon black. It is a white pigment usually applied to create certain shades when mixed with colorants, and also commonly used in food additives, sun screens and paints. Tattoos containing white inks often experience delayed healing, skin elevation and itching, which is linked to the use of titanium oxide.

Scientists from ESRF, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Ludwig-Maximilians University and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt now have a very clear picture on the location of titanium dioxide once it gets into the tissue, thanks to the ESRF beamlines ID21 and ID16B.

We already knew that pigments from tattoos would travel to the lymph nodes because of visual evidence: the lymph nodes become tinted with the color of the tattoo. It is the response of the body to clean the site of entrance of the tattoo. What we didn't know is that they do it in a nano form, which implies that they may not have the same behavior as the particles at a micro level. And that is the problem: we don't know how nanoparticles react.

Bernhard Hesse, ESRF Visiting Scientist

Using ID21, Scientists obtained X-ray fluorescence measurements which allowed them to locate titanium oxide at the micro and nano range in the skin and in the lymphatic environment. They found a broad range of particles with up to several micrometers in size in human skin but discovered only the smaller nanoparticles traveled to the lymph nodes.

This may lead to the chronic enlargement of the lymph node and lifelong exposure. Scientists also used the technique of Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to assess biomolecular changes in the tissues in the proximity of the tattoo particles.

The Scientists report strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments as well as for conformational alterations of biomolecules that are sometimes linked to cutaneous inflammation and other issues associated with tattoos. They now hope to further inspect samples of patients with adverse effects in their tattoos in order to find links with chemical and structural properties of the pigments used to create these tattoos.

Image Credit: ESRF/Ines Schreiver


Scientists find that nanoparticles from tattoos travel inside the body


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Kerry Taylor-Smith

Written by

Kerry Taylor-Smith

Kerry has been a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader since 2016, specializing in science and health-related subjects. She has a degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Bath and is based in the UK.


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