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The impregnation of various types of pigment into the skin has been around for thousands of years. Any health risks associated with them appear to be negligible to non-existant other than local discoloration of the skin and finding pigment particles in regional lymph nodes and even more distant organs. Until recently, however, their removal has not been able to done on an effective basis until the introduction of the laser. Laser tattoo removal has been popular over the past decade and the technology and effectiveness for doing it continues to improve.

While the mechanism for how laser energy breaks down tattoo pigments is well known, what happens to the pigment in the absorption process is not well studied. As the laser breaks apart the pigment, is there any negative side effects to doing so from the composition of the tattoo pigment? Some opinions have been made that there are health risks associated with the laser treatment of some types of tattoo pigments. This has led to the analysis of the ingredients in tattoo pigment by many regulatory agencies including the FDA.

When laser pulses are applied to a tattoo, the focused light energy penetrates through the skin and is absorbed by the tattoo pigment particles.  Within thousands of a second, high temperatures are reached in the pigment moleculesThis causes them to expand due to the heat absorption and explode apart into many smaller particles. This is similar to hitting a boulder and breaking it into many smaller rocks. Once reduced in size, these pigment ‘rocks’ can then be picked up and removed by macrophages and transported to the liver for either excretion or retention

Most commercially available tattoo pigments are known to be inorganic azo-pigments or polycylic compounds. Analysis of lasered red tattoo pigments, such as Cardinal Red 22 and 18, showed toxic and carcinogenic decomposition products such as dichcloroaniline, dichclorobenzene, methyl – 5- nitroaniline and nitrotoluene.Sixteen of the 28 organic colorants used in tattooing are of the azo type and may possibly split metabolically into aromatic amines. Four of the 16 azo colorants “contain” amines that are classified carcinogens.  Solvent Red 1 “contains” o-anisidine, Pigment Red 7 “contains” 4-chloro-o-toluidine and Pigment Yellow 87 and Pigment Orange 16 contain 3,3′-dichlorobenzidine. The amines and the other metabolites of the colorant molecules may possess other inherent toxic properties.Out of 40 organic colorants identified, 24 (60%) are azo compounds -of which, 9 “contain” an amine that has been classified carcinogenic within the framework of the chemical regulations. In reality, the pigments used for many tattoos are mostly unknown and there is no disclosure of admixtures and no clinical approval cycle for tattoo pigment. Of most concern is the fact there is nothing known about the systemic health effects of tattoos, in particular about long-term effects which may contribute to specific types of cancer.

While it is likely that the laser breakdown of tattoo pigments does not pose a significant health threat, alternative approaches to laser tattoo removal should be considered. One such treatment approach is that of Tatt2Away. This is a transdermal approach to leeching the tattoo pigments out of the skin through the same process that was used to put them in….micropigmentation. By implanting a proprietary chemical using tattoo needles, the pigments are released back through the skin without heat or chemical breakdown of their structure. This would seem to lessen the potential risk of the release of any toxic compounds from the tattoo pigments.

Dr. Barry Eppley

Indianapolis Indiana

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