Tattoos linked to higher cancer risk, says study; Indian doctors agree, call for more research

The study found that tattooed individuals had a significantly higher risk of lymphoma. Red inks which often contain Mercury, can be particularly harmful.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jul 03, 2024 | 8:00 AM Updated Jul 03, 2024 | 8:00 AM

Tattoos linked to higher cancer risk, says study; Indian doctors agree, call for more research

Tattoos are more popular than ever, seen as a unique form of self-expression and artistry. It has become a style statement now! But what if that ink could be giving you cancer? A recent Swedish study suggests there might be more to consider before getting your next tattoo.

A Swedish population-based case-control study has found that people with tattoos had higher risk of developing malignant lymphoma, a type of cancer affecting the lymphatic system compared to those without.

This alarming finding from Lund University, Sweden, held true even after researchers accounted for factors like age, income, education, and smoking habits.

Interestingly, Indian oncologists and dermatologists say that though the study doesn’t prove that tattooing cause cancer, the finding of possible connection, that has been established in the study cannot be and should not be dismissed.

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Findings from the research

The researchers claim that there has been a rise in cases of lymphoma globally. While one study from 2000-2004 found no link between tattoos and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, it was believed that more research was needed.

Researchers felt that this older study might have missed a connection because tattoos were less common back then and there were fewer participants.

The swedish researchers aimed to determine if having tattoos increases the risk of malignant lymphoma, explore how the duration of exposure (time since first tattoo) affects this risk and also investigate the link between tattoos and different types of lymphoma.

Understanding these associations, the researchers felt, could help clarify whether lifestyle factors like tattooing contribute to the increasing rates of lymphoma and highlight the need for safer tattoo ink regulations.

The study analysed nearly 12,000 participants and found that tattooed individuals had a significantly higher risk (21 percent) of lymphoma. This increased risk remained even after accounting for factors like age, education, income, and smoking status.

The risk was particularly pronounced for certain types of lymphoma, such as diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and follicular lymphoma.

The risk was highest in those who had their first tattoo less than two years before the study period and decreased with longer durations but increased again for those with tattoos over 11 years old.

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How tattoos cause cancer

According to doctors, tattoo inks often contain harmful chemicals like Primary Aromatic Amines (PAA) which is in red ink, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAA) which is in black ink, and metals such as arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead, and nickel, found in inks of all colours, which are known to be carcinogenic.

These chemicals can travel to the lymph nodes and potentially cause harm over time.

Tattoo inks are a mix of different ingredients, including both organic and inorganic color pigments, leftovers from making these pigments, and various additives.Many of these chemicals are recognised as cancer-causing by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Dr Divya Sharma, renowned dermatologist from Bengaluru, not connected with the study, explained that when someone gets a tattoo, the ink is injected into the skin’s second layer (dermis) through multiple punctures.

“This process can trigger an immune response because your body sees the ink as foreign substance. The ink particles are then transported by immune cells to your lymph nodes, which are part of your immune system,” she noted.

“Lymph nodes are important because they contain cells that multiply and are sensitive to carcinogens. Exposure to harmful chemicals in tattoo ink can potentially disrupt the immune system and increase the risk of developing cancer, such as lymphoma, Dr Sharma added.

According to the researchers, it is estimated that 32 percent of the tattoo ink moves to the lymph nodes within six weeks, and almost all of it could eventually be transported over time.

The researchers found tattoo pigments and metal particles from the ink in the lymph nodes of tattooed individuals, which can make these nodes look enlarged and pigmented.

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Indian doctors on tattoo cancer risk

Speaking to South First, Dr US Vishal Rao, Dean and Country Director, Head and Neck Surgical Oncology and Robotic Surgery at HCG Cancer centre Bengaluru, said this groundbreaking study, published in The Lancet E Medicine, illuminated a potential link between tattoos and a higher risk of lymphoma.

He emphasised the need for rigorous regulatory measures on tattoo ink composition.

“While further epidemiologic research is crucial to establish a direct causality, the findings underscore the importance of monitoring and controlling the carcinogenic chemicals in tattoo inks to safeguard public health,” said Dr Rao, who is a Member of Cancer Control Committee, Government of Karnataka.

Meanwhile, Dr Sharma concurs, noting that for any substance to trigger malignancy, it usually needs to be present over a large surface area. This observation aligns with the study’s findings that larger tattoos might pose greater risks.

She said that although the study ruled out certain other factors that could increase the risk of cancer, she raised the possibility that lifestyle factors associated with individuals who get large tattoos, might contribute to their higher risk.

“While those factors are still to be studied, this current study by Sweden researchers cannot be dismissed. More epidemiological studies are needed in this regard. This is a very important study,” said Dr Sharma.

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Red ink tattoos more dangerous?

Dr Sharma said that Tattoo inks are complex mixtures containing organic and inorganic pigments, additives, and byproducts. Many of these substances are known carcinogens.

She said that red inks often contain mercury, which can be particularly harmful.

She stressed that different types of inks, especially those used in less regulated settings, can introduce various harmful chemicals directly into the dermis, the skin’s second layer, where immune cells are active.

These metals are known to cause allergic reactions, leading to severe granulomatous reactions, where the skin becomes swollen and thickened. This reaction can be severe, particularly with red pigments, and indicates that tattoo inks can indeed provoke an immune response.

Dr Sharma noted that red tattoos are notoriously difficult to remove with lasers.

“The pigments in red ink do not respond well to laser treatment, often requiring multiple sessions and sometimes still not achieving complete removal. Additionally, the process of laser removal can sometimes trigger severe skin reactions, further complicating the removal process,” she added.

The immune response to red ink is more pronounced compared to other colors.

Given these issues, Dr Sharma advised caution when choosing the kind of ink for tattoos and recommended consulting with a professional about the potential risks and ensuring that high-quality, regulated inks are used.

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What this study means for tattoo enthusiasts

Dr Sharma advised caution when getting tattoos, stressing the importance of knowing the ingredients in the inks. As more research is conducted, it’s crucial to stay informed about the potential risks associated with tattoos, she said.

While the study doesn’t definitively prove that tattoos cause cancer, it highlights a possible association that warrants further research.

Given the widespread popularity of tattoos, especially among younger people, these findings underscore the importance of regulatory measures to ensure the safety of tattoo inks.

Doctors explain that this is the first epidemiologic study to investigate the association between tattoo exposure and overall malignant lymphoma as well as lymphoma subtypes using a population-based case–control design and a large sample size.

Before getting a tattoo, research the ingredients in the ink and choose reputable artists who use high-quality, regulated products. Those getting large surface tattoos, especially using red ink in countries like Bangkok, should be cautious and aware of potential effects.

However, experts advise that there’s currently no need to remove your existing tattoos, but it’s wise to stay informed and exercise caution when planning your next tattoo.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)

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