Are Tattoos Bad For Your Liver? How To Make Sure Your Ink Is Metal-Free

Doctor of Clinical Nutrition By Brooke Scheller, DCN, M.S., CNS
Doctor of Clinical Nutrition
Brooke Scheller, DCN, M.S., CNS, is a clinical nutritionist, wellness expert, and foodie passionate about changing the way people feel about the food that they eat. She received her Doctorate in Clinical Nutrition, Functional and Integrative Nutrition from Maryland University of Integrative Health.
Are Tattoos Bad For Your Liver? How To Make Sure Your Ink Is Metal-Free

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After becoming trained in functional medicine, I decided to get a full workup done, including a stool analysis and blood work. I wasn't expecting to see anything alarming, but when I received the results of my blood tests, I was surprised to see harmful liver enzymes in my blood work.

Aside from having some moderate skin woes and a history of anxiety, I fortunately never had any major health concerns. So what could it be? And then I wondered—could there have been heavy metals in my tattoos?

Are there heavy metals in tattoos?

I got my first tattoo when I turned 18 and now have several, including a three-quarter sleeve on my left arm. When uncovering more details through a hair analysis, I found that my body's heavy metal load was through the roof. And I'm not alone—in the following months and years, I saw many clients who, like me, had an extremely overburdened liver in correlation to their number of tattoos.

Unfortunately, metals like mercury, iron, arsenic, lead, and cadmium help to give tattoo ink its color and permanency factor. Carbon black and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a soot-like product and a known pollutant, are often the main ingredients in black ink.

Exposure to these metals and chemicals can place an extreme burden on the liver and the other organs of elimination. Studies show that the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have been found stored in the lymph nodes of tattooed people, and can cause them to actually turn black. Many of the heavy metals, like lead and mercury, are also considered to be neurotoxins that can affect cognitive function and cause brain fog, fatigue, and many other symptoms.

It's important to note that while these individual heavy metals themselves have been well-studied, the research on the long-term effects of tattoos is still in its infancy. Much more research is needed before we can say whether the heavy metals from tattoos can seep into our bloodstream and cause adverse effects. For me, it seems like that was the case—but the science itself is limited.

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So what can you do if you have or want tattoos?

While I eventually decided to stop getting tattoos, I also wrote off synthetic beauty products and processed foods—basically, I avoided any harsh chemicals I could control.

I also reduced my alcohol intake, used herbal chelation, and incorporated liver supporting herbs like milk thistle and dandelion to support the detoxification of the heavy metals in my system. And I received good news: My liver enzymes returned to normal after only a few months. That said, if you do have heavy metals in your blood (like me) and think it may be due to your tattoos, it's not all doom and gloom. Speak to your primary care doctor or functional medicine practitioner on how you should proceed safely.

If you do choose to get a tattoo, it's always best to speak to your tattoo artist about the safest, most hygienic products available. Some color inks use vegetable-based pigment from spices like turmeric instead of high doses of heavy metals. While these products do exist, you may have to seek them out, or your artist may have to special-order them.

Our skin is our body's largest organ. Just like with eating, what we put on our skin is equally important. What we use on our skin can go straight to our bloodstream and throughout our entire body—it may be easy to forget, but your skin can affect your health just as much as what you eat.

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