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Tattooed New Yorkers Report All Kinds of Nasty Skin Conditions

Researchers say going under the needle can sometimes mean rashes that last for months.

Physician Marie Leger shows a skin ailment contracted from tattooing. (NYU Langone Medical Center)

Folks in New York who’ve gotten tattooed sometimes receive a little something extra—a “rash, severe itching or swelling that lasted longer than four months and, in some cases, for many years,” according to researchers.

Up to 6 percent of the city’s inked populace has incurred an irritating medical condition linked to tattoos, say NYU physician Marie Leger and others in Contact Dermatitis. The most-protracted conditions seem to strike those who get injected with certain colors; 44 percent of people reported chronic skin conditions from red ink, 25 percent from black. These numbers come from a survey Leger’s team did in 2013 of about 300 random people in Central Park.

The New York situation is similar to those of countries in Europe that are tracking tattoos and health, say the researchers. Here’s more about the possible origins of the bad reactions, via a press release:

Leger cites the lack of regulatory oversight as an underlying weakness in measuring the true scope of the complications tied to tattooing, noting that the chemical composition of colored inks used in the process is poorly understood and not standardized among dye manufacturers. "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," says Leger….

"The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body's immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood," says Leger. "Some of the reactions appear to be an immune response, yet we do not know who is most likely to have an immune reaction to a tattoo."

It should be noted that 94 percent of people surveyed indicated no serious medical problems. Still, Leger says that among those who do contract a skin condition there can be significant pain—sores sprouting up in non-inked parts of the body, for instance, or itchy, raised lesions that require laser treatment or surgery.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.