Tattoo ink goes under the skin - and many unresearched substances go along with it. Some experts fear the dyes could lead to health issues, and the German government is beginning to seek stricter regulations.
Tattoos no longer offer a guaranteed way to stand out. Estimates hold that around 10 to 20 percent of Germans have tattoos, and the trend among young people for permanent body art is holding strong. Even the wife of President Christian Wulff has a tattoo on her upper arm, a sign that the practice has spread to all levels of society.
But few consider just what winds up under their skin when getting tattoos. When getting inked, color pigment is pressed into living skin tissue with needles, and experts have long warned about possible health issues stemming from the practice.
Bettina Wulff, wife of President Christian Wulff, doesn't hide her ink
The German state of Baden-Württemberg is now out to establish stricter rules for tattoo parlors in Germany and possibly throughout Europe.
Birgit Bienzle works for Baden-Württemberg's Consumer Protection Ministry and supports the initiative. She argues that current law regulates cosmetic articles stronger than tattoo ink, despite the fact that make-up is only temporarily put on skin, while tattoos generally remain there for life.
In 2009, Germany passed national regulations on tattoos, but Bienzle said the regulations were based on outdated information from the Council of Europe, which has since issued newer data.
Implementation is also a problem at the moment, she argues.
"The council's guidelines don't suffice because they are only being put into practice by a few countries," Bienzle told Deutsche Welle.
The deputy head of Baden-Württemberg's Food Control Ministry has thus called for producers of tattoo ink to be held accountable.
"In the short term, we should improve national tattoo ink regulations while putting pressure on the federal government to pursue a Europe-wide policy," Bienzle said.
So far Europe has only instituted guidelines and no laws relating to tattoo inks.
Germany's Federal Assembly took up the topic last Friday, concluding that tattoo ink manufacturers should have to prove that their products involve no health concerns. Their resolution was forwarded to relevant parliamentary committees.
The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has also been reexamining its stance on tattoo ink. One suggestion involved a list that would include all unobjectionable materials that could be used in ink manufacture, but experts warn that the creation of such a list could take years. Research on the subject is still in its early phase.
Tattoo studio employees are used to operating with little regulatory oversight
Car finish or skin ornament?
Researchers in Freiburg and Karlsruhe sounded alarms in 2010 after discovering that a third of the 38 tattoo inks they investigated contained unrecommended substances. Half of those substances were classified as health hazards, which included aromatic amine, nitrosamine and phenol, all potentially carcinogenic.
They also discovered dyes that were developed in completely different industries. Birgit Bienzle noted Ferrari red as an example.
"The name already tells you what the dye was developed for - namely, as car finish," she said.
That same substance now makes its way into tattoo parlors. Medical studies have also shown that components of tattoo ink can lodge themselves in recipients' lymph nodes.
"The lymphatic system is a very important system within the human body, in particular for getting rid of toxins," Bienzle said.
The presence of harmful dye components there could present a health risk, and that risk may even be escalated when tattoos are removed with lasers.
"What exactly happens to the pigment that has been destroyed in the skin cannot be said exactly," Bienzle noted.
Nonetheless there remains no concrete proof that tattoo dyes can lead to cancer, she added.
A dermatologist removes a patient's tattoo
From a niche to the masses
Experts have wondered about how exactly producers can be held accountable. The history of tattoos as a niche practice that went largely under the radar has made establishing standards more difficult. The dyes used in tattoos often came not from specialized companies but from various suppliers. Major companies were long uninvolved with the practice, and many producers remain who do not have to face significant regulations.
Tattoo experts often note that China has become a major locus of dye production.
Some merchants and tattoo studio operators have joined in calls from tattoo fans for clearer regulations.
"There's nothing worse than a bad reputation and negative mouth-to-mouth propaganda. Once customers start talking, things can make the rounds very quickly," said Andi, an employee at a major dye supplier in Germany, who is tattooed from head to toe.
Experts doubt whether dye manufacturers will really hold to their guidelines. After all, many could argue that their dyes are not intended to be used under the skin.
Answers about the effects of tattoo ink are also difficult and expensive to come by. In comparison with the cosmetics industry, tattoo studios and dye producers have far less money at their disposal.
Author: Klaus Jansen / gsw
Editor: Gabriel Borrud