Tattoo Allergic Reactions May Be Result of Needles Shedding Nickel, Chromium: Study

New research suggests microscopic bits of nickel and chromium from tattoo needles may cause allergic reactions.

In a study published this week in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology, German researchers indicate tattoo needles contain metals that can break off during a tattoo session and cause an allergic reaction on the skin.

One of the common side effects of tattoos include allergic reaction. Prior studies have shown tattoo ink contains high amounts of nickel, chromium, cobalt and mercury. The metals can be transported and deposited from the skin to the lymph nodes and cause allergic reactions. However, this new study indicates metal from the needles can also abrade and deposit to the skin and lymph nodes.

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Researchers analyzed 12 steel tattoo needles. Each needle contained approximately 6% to 10% nickel and 15% to 20% chromium. The needles were examined with an electron microscope before and after a tattooing session. Sessions were completed on both human skin and pig skin.

The findings indicate that after tattoo sessions, the needles were abraded and microscopic bits of nickel and chromium had worn off.

According to the researchers, the likely reason the tattoo needles abrade during use is because titanium dioxide is added to tattoo ink to brighten the colors. Titanium dioxide is highly abrasive and erodes the needles, allowing metal to transfer to the skin and later to the lymph nodes. Abrasion does not occur when only black ink is used alone because titanium dioxide is not added.

A skin biopsy taken from a patient who experienced a type IV allergy from the nickel showed both wear particles and iron pigments contaminated with nickel on the skin after getting a tattoo.

The evidence indicates more nickel is entering the skin and lymph nodes during tattooing from needle use and from ink pigments.

Researchers can’t say exactly how much nickel is entering the body during each tattoo session or what type of risk that carries.

“Previously, the virtually inevitable nickel contamination of iron pigments was suspected to be responsible for nickel-driven tattoo allergies,” they concluded. “The evidence from our study clearly points to an additional entry of nickel to both skin and lymph nodes originating from tattoo needle wear with an as yet to be assessed impact on tattoo allergy formation and systemic sensitization.”

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