Tattoos Are Beautiful - But Here's The Ugly Truth About Allergic Reactions To Tattoo Ink


A new study conducted at New York University has found that around 10 percent of people living in the Big Apple develop allergic reactions after getting a tattoo.

Marie Leger – an assistant professor of dermatology at NYU's Langone Medical Center – led a team of researchers in studying the possible effects tattoos have on skin.

In a survey of 300 New Yorkers, the researchers discovered that 31 (10.3 percent) of the participants said they experienced an adverse reaction after getting a tattoo. Around 13 (4.3 percent) people said they had acute reactions, while 18 (6 percent) suffered from a chronic reaction to a particular ink, which lasted for less than four months.

If the NYU survey can be considered representative, the findings would suggest that around 25 percent of Americans with a permanent tattoo experience skin allergies.

"I was totally surprised by these numbers," Leger said"I see patients with complaints about their tattoos, but I didn't have any idea how common it was."

While she may agree that tattoos can be beautiful, Leger said people should be made aware of the risks tattoos could entail on their health.

Tattoo artists and parlors across the country follow a strict set of regulations in order to prevent infections and transmissions of diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis. Leger, however, believes that the tattoo inks artists use are not closely monitored.

Earlier studies in Europe pointed to the chemical content of tattoo inks as possible causes of allergic reaction. Black ink, for example, contains pigments based on carbon, while red ink may contain azo-based hues. According to previous research, Leger said these agents can produce different reactions on the skin.

Other substances often found in tattoo inks include manganese, aluminum, iron oxide, ferric hydrate and mercury sulfide.

Types of Allergic Reaction to Tattoos

Tattoo allergies can manifest in different forms, depending on the color of the ink used. Here are some of the most well-known reactions:

Acute Inflammatory Reaction

Most people who get a tattoo experience an acute inflammatory allergic reaction. This is when the skin becomes red, irritated and mildly swollen after coming into contact with the tattoo needle and the ink. This is not a serious allergy and will often subside after two to three weeks.


Tattoos are also known to cause allergic and photoallergic contact dermatitis. Similar to an acute allergic reaction, dermatitis often starts out as an irritation and swelling of the skin, followed by severe itchiness. The allergies then develop into blisters and crusting or flaking of the skin.

Dermatitis is often caused by red tattoo ink because it contains mercury sulfide.


Tattoos created using yellow ink sometimes get irritated when exposed to direct sunlight. This is because of the cadmium sulfide used in most yellow and some red tattoo inks.


These are ridges of small bumps that can appear after getting a tattoo that contains red, green, purple and blue inks.

Symptoms of Allergic Reaction

Common symptoms of an allergic reaction to tattoos include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Flaking
  • Scaly appearance
  • Rash or bumps
  • Purple or red nodules around the tattoo

What to Do in Case of Allergic Reaction to Tattoos

People who develop an allergic reaction to tattoo inks are often advised not to treat the irritation themselves. They should also try to avoid waiting for the allergies to subside on their own.

Experts recommend going to a doctor as soon as possible in order to properly assess the extent of the allergic reaction and determine the correct treatment.

The New York University study is published in the journal Contact Dermatitis.

Photo: Jhong Dizon | Flickr 

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