Investigating the Presence of Heavy Metals in Tattoo Inks

Student Author(s)

Stanna Dorn
Jeffery Hosmer

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Graham Peaslee


Dr. Christine Jaworek-Lopes, Emmanuel College, Boston, MA

Document Type


Event Date



Tattoos have existed for thousands of years; there is evidence that both the ancient Egyptians and the Iceman (both 5000 ybp) had tattoos. Historically, organic pigments were used in tattoo inks. However, recent tattoo methods have involved more brightly colored inks. One way to obtain brightly colored pigments is to take advantage of partially filled d-orbitals in the transition metals. Recent publications have indicated that these heavy metals are present in tattoo inks in concentrations that may lead to human health concerns. Chronic exposure to heavy metals can cause tremors, liver damage, memory loss, cognitive loss and possibly death. While there are no regulations for heavy metals in tattoo inks in the US, investigation of the prevalence of metals in the tattoo inks could lead to increased consumer awareness of potential health issues. To this end, over 140 commercial tattoo inks have been acquired and analyzed for the presence of heavy metals using three different methods: Scanning Electron Microscopy/Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy, Particle Induced X-Ray Emission, and Microwave Digestion/Inductively Coupled Plasma-Atomic Emission Spectrometry. Preliminary results indicate significant prevalence of copper, aluminum and titanium in the tattoo inks, as well as sporadic occurrence of other toxic metals such as lead, arsenic and barium.


This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. NSF-RUI 1306074), and the U.S. Department of Energy (Grant No. DE SC0007352),

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