Last month, the media were clamouring to report a potential ‘link’ between tattoos and cancer1,2. Their source came from an upcoming report by the European Chemicals Agency, and they were claiming that this would show an increased the risk of cancer from tattoos. Now published3, it was clearly a classic media story – take some science, misrepresent it, exaggerate it, then present it to the unsuspecting public.
By THOR (originally posted to Flickr as Tattoo Studio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There is currently no evidence that tattoos cause skin cancer
With the media running amok with such a bold statement however, you might assume that the risk of skin cancer was, at least, a fairly important feature in this report. Except it wasn’t. You may also conclude that there have been lots of skin cancers found on tattoos. Except there haven’t. There are millions of skin cancer cases each year4, and there are tens of millions of people with tattoos. But so far, we know of only fifty people who have developed a cancer on their tattoo3,5. Excuse me if I don’t rush to get my tattoo lasered off just yet. There is evidence that tattoo inks can cause other skin complaints, especially during the healing process3, but with so few skin cancer cases, right now it seems that this ‘link’ will remain in inverted commas; as a coincidence and nothing more.
By The Dame (Flickr: London Tattoo Convention 2013) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Could this conclusion change? Of course. Anything can change with more information. There are two things to consider here. Firstly, some tattoo inks contain known irritants and cancer-causing agents (carcinogens)3. However, just because something contains a carcinogen, does not guarantee a cancer will arise from it; not all carcinogens are as strong as others. Secondly, as most skin cancer cases have been found on red or black tattoos5, you might wonder if people should be avoiding these colours. But, frankly, there is far too little information to make a judgement on this. Red and black are very popular colours, and it is just as likely that this is also a coincidence.
The bottom line?
Should tattoo dyes be regulated? Absolutely. Can we claim that tattoos cause skin cancer? Absolutely not. There is still a lot we don’t know. There may be unreported skin cancer cases. There may be differences in the chemicals used in new inks, compared to older inks. There may be other risks which are brought on by other lifestyle activities. But let’s put it like this – these results are not going to stop me from getting my next tattoo. The bottom line? If you have a tattoo, keep protecting it from the sun. If you’re getting a tattoo, don’t get one over a mole. It just makes it harder to spot any potential skin cancer symptoms.