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Tattoos have become a very popular (yet still controversial) beauty statement in recent years. At the same time, many of us wonder whether they are good for our bodies. Is there such a thing as natural tattoos? The answer is yes! There are natural and non-toxic options. You can join in on this popular body art trend and still keep your body free of additional toxins.
I’m personally up to 18 tattoos now, although they are very small ones. On one wrist, I have the Latin words “memento mori.” Loosely translated, this means, “Remember your death.” It reminds me that I will die one day and that I should focus on living life in the present moment.
On the other wrist, I have “Amor Fati,” which basically means, “Love what is.” It’s an important reminder to not just be okay with what happens in life, but embrace it. Even when something in life seems difficult, there’s often something we can learn from it. Byron Katie even has a book on “Loving What Is.”
Before I got too far down the tattoo trail, I did my research to make sure they weren’t going to be damaging to my body long-term. In this article, I’ll share my research and experience with how to get tattoos safely.
What’s A Tattoo?
A tattoo is a form of human body modification or permanent decoration that is done by a needle inserting ink into the dermis (the second layer) of the skin. The word comes from a Polynesian word: Ta, which means “to strike.” The word eventually developed into the Tahitian word tatau, which means “to mark something.”
Tattoos are used in many different ways. They may be used as a small decoration on the upper arm or as a large work of tattoo art like a chest piece, half-sleeve tattoo, leg tattoo, or leg sleeve. They may appear on all different parts of the body, including the genitals. They can be made up of vibrant colors or be as simple as a name inscribed with black ink.
A Short History of Tattoos
Tattoo use goes back to ancient times when they were used in Egypt as early as 2040 B.C. Ancient Greeks and Romans used tattoos as a form of punishment and also to mark criminals and prisoners of war. It made these individuals easy to identify if they happened to escape.
Certain native cultures also used tribal tattoos to identify who was “one of them.”
Tattoos used to be seen as a cultural taboo—associated with rebellion or specific groups of people, like jailed criminals, gang members, or even the military. They usually had a certain stigma attached to them and were often looked upon with raised eyebrows—particularly when young people got their first one. However, their popularity has been increasing over the last couple of decades.
Athletes and celebrities have been one influence in the increase. However, tattoos are also sometimes used to cover up surgery-related or injury-related scars.
A survey done in 2004 found that 24% of people between the ages of 18 and 50 had tattoos, and another 21% said they’d considered getting one. A more recent survey done in 2015 with a larger group (2,225 people) found that the tattooed group had increased to 29%.
Problems With Traditional Tattoos
Traditional tattoos aren’t necessarily harmless words or images on your body. There are many concerns around what gets injected into your skin and how it will affect your body long-term. Here are some of the concerns around traditional tattoos:
Cancer-causing ink – Black tattoo ink is the most common color used in tattooing. It’s also very high in cancer-causing ingredients, like benzo(a)pyrene. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists benzo(a)pyrene as a carcinogen. A 2018 review study listed 51 publications and 63 cancer cases associated with tattoos. Black, blue, and red inks were the most cancer-promoting.Allergic reactions to ink – If you’re sensitive to other chemicals or topical ingredients, beware of tattoo ink. The dyes used in tattoos are full of synthetic ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction. Most of the reactions are to red ink, but people may also react to the cadmium in yellow ink, chromium in green ink, and cobalt in blue ink. Contamination with microorganisms – In May of 2019, the FDA sent out a Safety Advisory to consumers, tattoo artists, and retail shops warning that some inks had been contaminated with bacteria and had been recalled. Infections from these inks could lead to allergies, rashes, or lesions and could cause permanent scarring.Damage to the skin – Bacterial infections can lead to blemishes in the skin, leading to permanent scarring. Sometimes keloids (unsightly scar tissue) also form as a reaction to the tattoo ink. They sometimes need surgery to remove them. Inks may be made up of metal-containing compounds, such as paraphenylenediamine, which can cause issues with skin pigment.Tattoos can impact sweating – You tend to lose more sodium and electrolytes in tattoo-covered areas. This probably won’t make a difference if you just have a small tattoo here or there. However, significant ink coverage can get in the way of normal sweating, losing some of the health benefits of perspiration.Unknown long-term effects – The FDA has noted that, although research is ongoing, we still don’t know all the potential long-term effects of tattoos. While people report many of the adverse reactions immediately, some effects don’t happen until years later. Dietrich Klinghardt, M.D., Ph.D., states that tattoos create an interference field and disrupt the distribution of information throughout the body.
The toxicity leading to allergic reactions, cancers, and unknown long-term effects comes from the fact that tattoo inks are full of chemicals. Here are just a few (there may be up to 100 different substances in any given ink):
Solvents, like ethanol, isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), glycerin, and propylene glycol – The solvents are probably the safest of the ingredientsEmulsifiers, a variety of estersBinders, like Polyethers, polyvinylpyrrolidone, block-copolymer, and shellacAnti-foaming agents, like polydimethylsiloxanePreservatives, like parabens, phenols, formaldehyde, methylisothiazolinone, and petrochemicalsMetals, like nickel, cobalt, chromium, cadmium, and mercury. Mercury may be a hidden contributor to candida overgrowth and kills neurons and damages our mitochondria.Microorganisms, like Staphylococci, Streptococci, and Pseudomonas subspeciesNanoparticles, especially in black ink. These nanoparticles can enter the bloodstream and create toxicity throughout the body.
Unfortunately, most people have no idea tattoos pose any risk to them healthwise. A survey of over 200 people was published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in 2018. Researchers wanted to find out what people knew about the medical risks of tattoo ink.
The study included both those who’d gotten tattoos and those who had not. The average age was 26.9 years. Of the questions on health risks, over 50% of the answers were answered incorrectly. Clearly, people don’t fully understand tattoo risks and complications.
That said, there are options out there without the toxicity of dyes and contamination.
Health-Conscious Tattoo Options
The most important thing to look for if you’re interested in getting a tattoo is that it’s non-toxic. You may be able to find one of the following options at a health-conscious tattoo parlor:
Vegan tattoos are made without any animal-based ingredients, such as glycerin from animal fat. Instead, they use plant-based glycerin. The colors are also free from animal or even insect-based ingredients or dyes, like shellac, which comes from beetles.
Vegan ink takes its colors from natural plant- and mineral-based sources, for example:
Black dye from carbon and logwoodWhite dye from titanium dioxidePurple dyeBlue dye from sodium, copper, and aluminumGreen dye from monoazo, from carbonYellow dye from turmericRed dye from naphthol
Because the dyes come from natural ingredients, they are less likely to cause issues with toxicity, allergies, and cancer.
What About Henna?
Henna is a popular choice for those interested in natural beauty. This tattoo option comes from India. Henna is made from a tropical flowering plant that is grown in Africa and Asia. The henna is dried, ground into a paste, and used as a dye. It may be used as a tattoo, hair dye, or colorant for silk, wool, or leather.
The nice thing about henna is that it’s not permanent. It only lasts for a couple of weeks at most. Henna sits on the surface of the skin—the epidermis, rather than the dermis. While it seems like it would be safer because it’s natural and temporary, the FDA has issued a warning about temporary tattoos.
Henna dye may not be completely pure and natural. Traditional henna may be fine, but now something called “black henna” is popular. So-called “black henna” is often a blend of henna and other ingredients, like a hair dye containing the chemical p-phenylenediamine (PPD). Sometimes “black henna” doesn’t even contain henna. Instead, it’s just the PPD hair dye. PPD is harmful to the skin, and by law, it can’t be used in cosmetics. It’s important to do your research on your henna artist to ensure you are receiving pure henna.
Are there really organic tattoos? Not in the way that you might think. There’s no USDA-organic tattoo ink. “Organic” is a style of tattooing. The term doesn’t refer to natural ingredients but the design. “Organic” refers to the elements that are used by the tattoo artist in creating the design.
Organic tattoo designs include natural elements from the earth, animals, birds, bones, claws, and human anatomy, including the digestive system, individual organs, muscle tissue, tendons, and bones. It’s popular among fans of science fiction.
For many within the organic community, biomechanical tattoos (or “biomech tattoos”) are also popular. These sci-fi-looking tattoo concepts include machine parts, often combined with the organic idea to create an organic cyborg tattoo.
Potential Toxicity of Natural Tattoos
Even if you find a parlor that uses natural tattoo ink, you could still find yourself reacting to them. It makes sense because many people have allergic reactions to perfectly healthy foods. Whether you react depends on your immune system. However, there’s also always the potential for bacterial contamination.
If you decide to get a tattoo (or add to your collection), here are some tips to make sure you have the best and safest experience:
Find a reputable place – Do your research ahead of time and find a licensed, reputable tattoo studio. Confirm hygienic practices – When getting your tattoo, watch to make sure the facility uses good hygiene and sterilizes chairs, work surfaces, and equipment between clients. Also, make sure your artist washes his or her hands and dons a fresh pair of gloves before starting. Needles should be taken from a new, sealed package.Make sure proper care is taken of skin beforehand – Your skin should be properly cleaned with a disinfectant like rubbing alcohol before tattooing.Take care of your tattoo afterward – New tattoos should only be bandaged for 1 or 2 hours. After removing the bandages, apply a natural antibiotic cream or even a colloidal silver spray. Later on, gently clean the area with soap and water and gently pat dry. Keep an eye on it – Make sure the area is clean and free of infection. For the first few days, keep the area moisturized with shea butter, jojoba oil, or a mild unscented cream. (If you want to DIY, try this one.)Give it time to heal – It can take two weeks for your skin to heal after a tattoo. That means the skin is going to be sensitive and fragile for a while. Avoid touching the tattooed area and avoid direct sun exposure until it heals.
You may also want to check this page from the National Conference of State Legislatures to see what the laws and statutes are for tattooing in your state.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Tim Jackson. He is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopedic Rehabilitation, and a Functional Medicine provider. He holds a B.S. Degree in Health Science and Chemistry from Wake Forest University. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you gotten vegan or henna tattoos? How was your experience? Share below!
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