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Are Tattoos Bad for Your Liver (Ultimate Guide)?

Every person who decides to get a tattoo usually thinks about the meaning and symbolism behind their new ink or how cool it will look. However, we rarely think about how that tattoo will affect our body from the medical point of view.

More precisely, can it harm your liver?

This post aims to answer that question. Keep reading to see whether liver problems could occur due to tattoos or not? Whether you’re just interested in the health aspect of tattoos or you are at a higher risk of liver problems (or already have them) this post can help you out.

How Do Tattoos Affect the Liver?

Even though we know the basics of getting a tattoo, most people don’t know enough about the process and underlying mechanisms associated with it. Getting a tattoo involves injecting ink or colorants into the skin. When the tattoo artist pushes the needle under the surface of the skin, the ink resides in the dermis in the form of tiny particles.

A small portion of the ink is absorbed by the surrounding tissues whereas the remainder enters the lymphatic system (a network of tissues, vessels, and organs). That explains the presence of ink in the lymph nodes next to the tattooed area. However, the ink doesn’t remain in one place. Excess ink moves through the body via the blood, but it may rest on the surrounding tissues too. This mechanism of action is scientifically confirmed.

For instance, a study from Scientific Reports showed some ink particles tend to migrate through the lymphatic system and bloodstream and end up in lymph nodes. Eventually, as the excess ink travels through the body some particles may reach other organs and tissues including your liver.

In some cases, the excess ink can leave the body through bowel movements or via the urinary system. After all, extra ink in the body needs to leave the system somehow. In most scenarios, it goes through the liver and kidneys on the way out.

A study from the journal Dermatology aimed to trace tattoo pigments in internal organs and found black and red pigment deposits in mouse liver. Scientists concluded tattoo pigment migrated from the skin via blood flow to the liver, which is an important organ for detoxification.

The main function of the liver is to detoxify the body by breaking down toxins i.e. poisonous substances. But, the chemical structure of the ink can induce some immunotoxic effects. Exposure of the liver to the colorants and heavy metals in low-quality ink may overburden this organ. Some consequences include cognitive problems such as brain fog.

At the same time, the presence of heavy metals can harm liver enzymes and induce inflammation. Inflammation tells us the liver is under stress. While tattoo pigment can induce an inflammatory state, the most common site of inflammation is the skin. But, inflammation can occur in other organs such as the liver or become systemic in some cases.

Colorants and Heavy Metals

First, it’s important to mention that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the tattoo industry as strictly as many others. In fact, the FDA considers the ink used in tattoos (and permanent makeup) to be cosmetics. The lack of strict regulation often gives tattoo studios and artists “freedom” to use low-quality ink due to low prices. But this kind of ink brings more harm than good.

You see, low-quality ink is often contaminated and may pave the way to blood-borne infections such as hepatitis C and B. These infections can lead to severe outcomes such as liver cancer.

Tattoo ink combines the colorant and carrier. The latter serves to move the colorant. Carriers may contain water, glycerin, alcohol, witch hazel, and isopropyl. Not all carriers are harmless. Some of the most hazardous carriers are phenol and formaldehyde.

The colorant is the most problematic aspect of tattoo ink. It can contain heavy metals such as nickel, cobalt, zinc, lead, chromium, cadmium, mercury, barium, iron, aluminum, copper, and iron oxide.

The question is – how do these compounds affect liver health? Once deposited into the skin dermis, tattoo ink faces the invasion of macrophage immunity cells. This results in the flaking of the ink where most of it remains in the dermis while the remainder moves as described above. When heavy metals reach the liver, they can cause inflammation and impair enzyme levels. Pigment particles can be hostile toward liver cells.

It’s Not Just about Tattooing Per Se

Tattoos and their impact on the liver are a complex subject. We can’t limit it to the colorants and carriers only. You see, the impact of tattoos on the liver is not just about the quality of the ink used. The equipment and the environment play a major role too.

Old and unsterilized equipment are fertile grounds for bacteria, which may enter the body and cause diseases that lead to liver issues. The most commonly mentioned blood-borne diseases are hepatitis B and C, which can lead to severe consequences.

In other words, the quality of ink is crucial but it also matters whether the tattoo artist is using all the right tools to make sure you are safe and protected. 

Can Tattoos Really Cause Hepatitis?

Tattoos are often associated with hepatitis primarily due to unsterilized equipment. Dirty needles deliver all sorts of bacteria into the person’s bloodstream.

That being said, it’s useful to mention evidence is still somewhat mixed.

One of the oldest studies on this subject concluded tattooing could be an important infection route for hepatitis viruses, which can lead to chronic inflammatory liver diseases.

The research from the Hepatology journal also confirmed tattooing is linked to hepatitis C infection. But, a different study found no evidence to support the claims tattoos cause chronic viral hepatitis.

A lot more research is necessary to learn more about the relationship between tattoos and hepatitis. This only emphasizes the importance of choosing your tattoo artist/parlor wisely.

Unfortunately, tattoos are still considered taboo in many parts of the world and persons with body ink are stigmatized. These kinds of attitudes toward tattoos and their wearers prevent us from fully understanding how they affect the body. Many people will say tattoos are bad for our health or liver, but that may not be necessarily true. A vast majority of people with tattoos do not experience health problems associated with their body art.

How to Protect Your Liver?

The most important thing to do to protect liver (and general) health is to be careful. Always choose reputable tattoo parlors with good hygiene and excellent tattoo artists who put safety first. That is the best way to make sure you get a great tattoo with high-quality ink, not contaminated stuff.

Not only a tattoo artist needs good ink, but also a clean needle and sterilized environment. Some tattoo salons will not give you that. So, don’t rush. Take time to find the tattoo parlor with the best and safest quality of service.

Also, avoid drinking alcohol 24 hours before you get inked. Your tattoo aftercare regimen should include alcohol-free and fragrance-free products.


Do Tattoos Affect Your Organs?

A certain amount of ink may travel through your blood and reach internal organs, as described throughout this post. Pigments can reach your kidneys too, for example. That being said, studies on this subject are still lacking and most people don’t have any issues.

Do Tattoos Harm Mental Health?

When discussing the effects of tattoos on physical health, in this case, the liver, it’s also useful to address mental health. Tattoos are highly unlikely to harm the mental health of their wearers. What’s more, people have significantly less anxiety and dissatisfaction with their appearance after they get a tattoo.

Are Tattoos Safe Long-Term?

Studies about tattoos and their safety are scarce and focus on short-term results. The long-term effects of tattoos need more research. However, it’s useful to mention tattoo artists use organic pigments nowadays. Many studios opt for non-toxic ink in order to protect the health and safety of their clients. Before you schedule an appointment in a specific tattoo studio, make sure to consult the tattoo artist about the ink they use and the ingredients found in it.

Bottom line

More and more people decide to get a tattoo. While tattoos do emphasize our individuality, it’s important to learn how it affects our health. This post explored the relationship between tattoos and the liver. Low-quality ink, contaminated and unsterilized equipment, and environment can potentially lead to liver problems, due to bacteria and pigments that reach this organ.

However, it’s possible to reduce the risk of liver-related complications by choosing your tattoo parlor and artist wisely. Keep in mind most people experience no liver problems due to tattoos. But, being careful is always a good thing.

Also Read: Do Tattoos Look Bad After Weight Loss?

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