Binghamton University students and faculty recently conducted a study on commercial tattoo inks and their potential threats to human health.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry John Swierk, in collaboration with the Swierk Group, an undergraduate and graduate chemistry research group, is exploring tattoo inks through topics of inorganic chemistry — specifically chemical reactions driven by light. This study focused on the reaction between light and tattoo ink over time.

Swierk explained that studying such reactions and the chemical composition of tattoo ink itself helps him and his team learn more about tattoos and their effect on the human body.

“My group primarily looks at how light can be used to drive chemical reactions, and one of the things we look at is how light causes tattoo inks to transform,” Swierk said. “We’re sort of generally trying to ask the question of, ‘Why does light cause a tattoo to fade?’ And then, along the lines of that, we’ve been looking at tattoo inks generally, what goes into the inks, what potential hazards the inks might have, with model cells and things like that.”

While examining chemicals in many tattoo inks, the group found a chemical called Azo, a potentially hazardous substance to humans. The chemical contents and the fact that the chemical contents are not always disclosed to the consumer were concerning, according to the group. Swierk said there is a lack of information among the general public about the chemicals in tattoo ink and their potential harm, partly due to the mislabeling on ink bottles.

“Our focus has primarily been on just trying to understand how accurate labeling is in the U.S. tattoo market, and generally, while the study is not done, we found that there are pretty significant issues with accuracy,” Swierk said. “The majority of inks that we’ve looked at so far have left ingredients out, or used different pigments than what is listed on the bottle and those are causes for concern.”

Kelli Moseman, ‘18, a member of the Swierk Group and fourth-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, described the group’s goals in response to labeling inconsistencies in the tattoo industry and the negative effect that can have on consumers.

“We wanted to fill that knowledge gap and make sure that the consumers were able to be educated on what they’re putting into our bodies,” Moseman said.

According to Alyssa Libonati, a member of the Swierk Group and senior majoring in biochemistry, along with analyzing the chemicals in tattoo inks, the group is also probing at the pigments in tattoo ink in an effort to determine the risk level of different pigments. Libonati described how the group is particularly concerned with how light drives the tattoos to fade, causing these pigments to degrade.

“As for the biological side, we are currently working on running cytotoxicity assays to determine the most damaging pigments,” Libonati said. “Once this has been established, we hope to pinpoint what mechanism is causing the cytotoxic effects, the time frame in which damage may occur and the effects that light-induced photodegradation of tattoos may have on the human body.”

The topics the Swierk group is studying — tattoo ink and how sunlight interacts with the ink — do not have finalized conclusions. Regarding the study’s results and how they should be interpreted, Swierk said the group will be furthering their research to determine whether tattoo ink may have a harmful impact on humans.

“I think that it’s important to stress that we don’t know if there are safety concerns with tattoos and we’re certainly not anti-tattoo, but there are enough things that I think raise some eyebrows, that are encouraging us to do more work and try to get better answers to these questions, so that maybe we can work toward developing better, safer tattoo inks,” Swierk said.