Tattoo inks are toxicological risks to human health: A systematic review of their ingredients, fate inside skin, toxicity due to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, primary aromatic amines, metals, and overview of regulatory frameworks

Toxicol Ind Health. 2022 Jul;38(7):417-434. doi: 10.1177/07482337221100870. Epub 2022 May 19.


Today, tattooing has become very popular among people all over the world. Tattooists, with the help of tiny needles, place tattoo ink inside the skin surface and unintentionally introduce a large number of unknown ingredients. These ingredients include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, and primary aromatic amines (PAAs), which are either unintentionally introduced along with the ink or produced inside the skin by different types of processes for example cleavage, metabolism and photodecomposition. These could pose toxicological risks to human health, if present beyond permissible limits. PAH such as Benzo(a)pyrene is present in carbon black ink. PAAs could be formed inside the skin as a result of reductive cleavage of organic azo dyes. They are reported to be highly carcinogenic by environmental protection agencies. Heavy metals, namely, cadmium, lead, mercury, antimony, beryllium, and arsenic are responsible for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, lungs, kidneys, liver, endocrine, and bone diseases. Mercury, cobalt sulphate, other soluble cobalt salts, and carbon black are in Group 2B, which means they may cause cancer in humans. Cadmium and compounds of cadmium, on the other hand, are in Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans). The present article addresses the various ingredients of tattoo inks, their metabolic fate inside human skin and unintentionally added impurities that could pose toxicological risk to human health. Public awareness and regulations that are warranted to be implemented globally for improving the safety of tattooing.

Keywords: cancer; heavy metals; phototoxicity; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; primary aromatic amines; tattoo inks; toxicology.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Amines / toxicity
  • Cadmium
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Ink
  • Mercury*
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons* / analysis
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons* / toxicity
  • Soot
  • Tattooing* / adverse effects


  • Amines
  • Carcinogens
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Soot
  • Cadmium
  • Mercury