Do Tattoos Cause Cancer?

April 27, 2022
Max Stevens

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Can Tattoos Cause Cancer?

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Learn about the potential risks associated with getting a tattoo, including the possibility of tattoos causing cancer.

Can Tattoos Cause Cancer?

Thinking of getting a tattoo but worried about the question – can tattoos cause cancer?

Whilst tattoos can lead to a variety of risks such as:

  • Rashes
  • Allergies
  • Pimples
  • Infection
  • Scarring

It’s currently only a myth that we’ll get into below. So, why do people think tattoos may give you cancer? What properties get people worried?

Read on to know more.

Do Tattoos Cause You Cancer?

There is no clear answer as to whether or not tattoos cause cancer. Up to this day, there’s no concrete evidence linking the two. However, some potential risks come with getting a tattoo, such as infection and allergic reactions.

What Is Cancer, And What Causes It?

Cancer is where the cells multiply and divide rapidly. These cells infiltrate normal tissues and organs and spread throughout the body.

One of the different features of cancer cells is that they reproduce uncontrollably faster than the usual control cell growth.

A Cancer Study estimated 19.3 million new cancer cases (18.1 million excluding nonmelanoma skin cancer) and almost 10.0 million cancer deaths in 2020 (9.9 million excluding nonmelanoma skin cancer).

Treatment of cancer can be long and arduous as several steps must be done to mitigate its effect on the body. Chemotherapy and medication have always been the go-to procedures for doing so.

The fear of getting a tattoo and having it be a cancer-causing agent is always in one’s mind. However, the risks are very low, and getting cancer from a tattoo is minimal, with no studies showing a direct link.

Tattoos and Cancer, How Do They Relate?

Skin cancer reports from tattoos are infrequent, and it’s challenging to determine if the tattoo itself was the cause.

These reported cases were subject to anecdotes and possible coincidences, meaning there isn’t enough evidence compiled at clinical trials to give a definitive answer.

While a tattoo hasn’t been proven to cause cancer, this question often arises due to some of the components in tattoo ink or compounds that can trigger cancer cell growth.

Tattoo ink may play a role in increasing the chances of developing cancer. Tattoo ink may have elements that can become a carcinogen.

Though ink from a tattoo isn’t entirely in the dermis, these inks are known to have carcinogenic properties when exposed to other body parts.

Tattoo Inks

Chemicals usually found in tattoo ink that could potentially prove to be harmful are:

  • Barium
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Copper
  • Alcohols
  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Plastics
  • Vegetable dyes

One study found that some inks contain a compound called m’-methyl-dimethylaminoazobenzene, or red azo dye (also known as red 22 or PR22). This dye produced liver cancer in rats when used as a food colouring.

In a similar report in 2016, black inks were found to have a higher chance of causing cancer. Why? Black dyes contain a carcinogenic compound called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Although these studies show that ink can be a catalyst, they don’t prove that tattoos themselves cause cancer. Only malignant cells and tumours have the potential to grow on tattoos, causing cancer.

Tattoos have no conclusive evidence that it causes cancers. Malignant cells and tumours do have the potential to grow on tattoos and cause cancer.

Cancers that can develop in a tattoo:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma

While cancer is quite an intimidating risk when you consider it, getting it is negligible. With advancements in the modern tattoo, ink production prioritises safety. You may be relatively safe from any form of skin cancer.

Nevertheless, always be mindful of any risk involved in tattoos or body art. Always observe how your body reacts.

Potential Health Risks Other Than Cancer

Inflammatory Response

Because the ink is a combination of foreign components, it causes an inflammatory response when penetrating the skin.

Naturally, our systems are programmed to fight any type of invading substance, resulting in an immunological reaction. This reaction can manifest through redness, rashes, and pain.

Macrophages—a type of white blood cell that eliminates foreign substances in our bodies—rush in to devour the alleged intruders and sacrifice themselves, stinging the skin. This is a frequent reaction to a fresh tattoo, and most people getting inked feel this.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact Dermatitis occurs when you are allergic to the ink’s components.

Specific components in ink, particularly heavy metals, might irritate and cause significant discomfort in the afflicted region.

Some heavy metal components found from tattoo inks are:

  • Lead
  • Chromium
  • Cadmium
  • Nickel
  • Titanium

It commonly manifests itself on the skin’s surface as rashes or itching. Scratching your tattoo can also lead to contact dermatitis because inflammatory cells congregate due to the irritation.

Granuloma Dermatitis ­

When the cells recruited for the immune response fail to effectively remove the foreign body, another immunological reaction may be initiated, causing clumping.

These clumped-up cells produce fibrotic tissue, which might manifest as hard lumps beneath the affected region.

Granuloma Dermatitis can also be mistaken as a tumour. Make sure to consult a dermatologist first to confirm.


These are little clustered lumps on the tattoo frequently generated by red dyes.

This response can be classified into two types: localised and generalised.

Localised lichenoid eruptions are commonplace, but generalised lichenoid cases are sporadic (only 4 cases have been reported).


Some tattoo components might cause discomfort when exposed to sunshine or other intense light sources.

This is known as a phototoxic response.

Avoid this response by shielding the tattoo from the sun’s rays. UV rays from sunlight can also cause skin cancer regardless of whether there’s a tattoo.

Always protect yourself from the sun, especially when its intensity is at its peak or in mountainous regions.


Infections can be caused by the tattoo artist or the inked person’s unhygienic habits.

Tattoos are regarded as raw, open wounds.

External infections in the environment, such as bacteria or fungal spores, can quickly enter and spread through the skin.

To avoid this, general tattoo maintenance and cleaning must be followed. Always be on the lookout for:

  • Pus-filled bumps oozing
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Foul odour from the tattoo

Infections are often severe and should not be taken lightly.

Consult with a physician immediately if you think an infection is forming in your tattoo.


Tattoos that aren’t cared for properly or tattoos that cause allergic reactions may lead to scarring. Scarring usually occurs if the tattoo doesn’t heal properly.

If scarring is more pronounced, surgery may be needed to remove them.

Person In An Immunocompromised State

Being in an immunocompromised state means that your immune system is not functioning as it should be.

People with this kind of disorder have a greater chance of contracting diseases or illnesses. Thus, the probability of getting cancer increases dramatically.

Do not get a tattoo if you have the following health conditions:

  • Hepatitis C
  • Diabetes

How To Avoid Potential Health Risks When Getting A Tattoo?

When you get a tattoo, you’re taking on a permanent body modification that will be with you for the rest of your life. So it’s essential to take the necessary precautions to avoid any potential health risks. Here are some tips on how to prevent potential health risks when getting a tattoo:

  • Understand your skin – Certain underlying skin issues might cause tattoo reactions in the body more easily. Eczema, skin asthma or psoriasis can make you more prone to these reactions.
  • If you’re immunocompromised, don’t get a tattoo. A body with a poor immune system due to disease, stress, or other external factors can limit the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Knowing your body – Knowing what you are sensitive to, aside from tattoo inks, can be very helpful in decreasing the risk of an allergic reaction.
  • Keep your tattoo clean – Always treat your tattoo as a medical operation that requires special care. A clean tattoo can help reduce your chances of having an adverse response.

Knowing your artist or going to a reputable establishment may go a long way when getting your first tattoo. The more reputable the artist, the more expensive it may be. Health and safety should always be considered when having a tattoo.

Final Thoughts

Tattoos have been with us culturally and artistically for thousands of years.

Yet, our understanding of how it reacts to our body is limited, especially regarding cancer.

Though evidence shows that the correlation between tattoos and cancer is unlikely, risks are still at play when you account for other forms of illness or disorders.

Always be prepared for anything and be knowledgeable when getting a tattoo. Information can be your ally and tool to minimise risks and help you enjoy the complete pleasure of having a clean-looking healed tattoo.





Tattoo ink components:

Tattoo associated basal carcinoma:

Does tattoo ink give you cancer:

Can tattoos cause cancer:

Chemical substances in  tattoo inks:



Max Stevens

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