This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Veganism has steadily grown from a dietary practice reserved for neo-hippies to an all-out mainstream lifestyle. People scrutinise not only what foods they’re putting in their bodies, but also which clothes they’re wearing, what makeup and shampoo they’re using, and even the type of ink that’s being tattooed into their skin.
A word to the uninitiated: The entire tattoo process can involve animal products. Everything, including the stencil paper, which is made with lanolin, a fatty substance found on sheep’s wool, to the moisture strip on the razor, which contains gelatin, and even the tattoo ink itself can have animal products in it. Non-vegan tattoo ink may contain bone char (which is used to boost black ink colour), glycerin from animal fat, gelatin from hooves, and shellac from beetles, according to PETA.
So, with almost half the population of 18- to 35-year-olds having tattoos and 6 percent of Americans now identifying as vegans (most of whom are Millennials) it’s no surprise vegan tattoo shops are beginning to crop up. Michelle Livingston, owner of Arcane Body Arts, a tattoo shop in Vancouver that offers completely vegan tattoos, says that she’s noticed a lot of interest in cruelty-free tattoos.
When she opened her shop six years ago, she says she was the only place in Vancouver, possibly all of Canada, that offered strictly vegan tattoos. Now, a quick google search yields dozens. Around the world, there’s been the same type of growth, with studios like Scapegoat Tattoo in Portland or Gristle Tattoo in Williamsburg, New York, that are "vegan only."
Livingston says that in her experience, most people are getting vegan tattoos for ethical and moral reasons. But there’s a theory out there that using vegan tattoo ink is safer for your skin and better for your health. For example: World Famous Tattoo Ink, a company that sells vegan tattoo ink to distributors around the world, claims that the ink is “better for immunity and overall health” as well as being “more reliable and safer on skin.” (I've reached out to them for comment on this and will update this story if they respond.) Meanwhile, a post on the blog Urban Vegan said that the use of vegan ingredients “can make for a safer, better experience when compared to traditional products.”
“From my point of view it’s just a sales trick,” says Jørgen Serup, chair of the European Society of Tattoo Pigment Research and a professor of dermatology at Bispebjerg University Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark. He says the claims are totally unsubstantiated. “They really have no arguments or truth to what they say. They have no proof.”
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All the health risks that have been associated with tattoo ink—that they contain potentially carcinogenic chemicals, that ink nanoparticles can get trapped in the lymph nodes, autoimmune reactions, allergic hypersensitivity, MRI complications and skin infections—rarely have anything to do with if the ink contains animal products or not.
“Since all the ingredients are pretty much the same, especially the ones of concern, I would not consider vegan inks to be less harmful. You have the same impurities deriving from the pigments and the preservatives and so on,” says Ines Schreiver, the junior group leader of Tattoo Ink Research at The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
The only thing Schreiver could think of that might tip the scales in favour of vegan ink is that it doesn’t have shellac, which can cause contact dermatitis, a type of allergic reaction. But that’s barely a consolation. According to a European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) report published in 2016, chemical ingredients—ones that would show up in vegan inks as well—were the number one issue in 95 percent of the 126 tattoo ink cases reported to the EU’s rapid alert system for dangerous products (and of that 95 percent, two-thirds of the cases were from US-imported inks).
That being said, vegan and traditional tattoo inks carry similar risks. “The major ingredients of [all] tattoo ink, which are the pigments, have not been developed for intra-dermal application,” says Peter Laux, head of unit product research and nanotechnology at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. He also notes that the pigments haven’t been tested to see if they’re safe for injection either, further asserting that the risks we should be aware of when getting inked don't have much to do with animal products being in them.
Pigments found in tattoo inks are often developed for the textile, plastics, or car paint industries, according to the FDA, and are made up of everything from minerals to industrial organics to plastic-based pigments. And while all of that sounds extremely sketchy, most of the concern with pigments is centreed around azo pigments, the pigments that make up about 60 percent of the colorants in tattoo inks, according to the JRC report.
There have been several cases where azo pigments have resulted in allergic reactions. There is also evidence that they can release carcinogenic compounds when they break down, specifically when the ink is exposed to solar and ultraviolet radiation. A study published earlier this year showed the laser removal process can have the same effect.
Another thing is the preservatives found in most tattoo ink: One preservative that is fairly common is formaldehyde, which has been classified as a carcinogen by the IARC. While preservatives are allowed in certain quantities, inks often exceed those levels, Laux tells me. He also says that there are heavy metal impurities, like nickel, which is a contact allergen. So having a tattoo that contains nickel can increase the risk of acquiring an allergy to it.
In short, there’s really no guarantee that any ink—vegan or not—is “safer” for our skin or health at this time. The entire industry is a bit of a mystery that we’re only starting to uncover. Tattoo ink ingredient lists are proprietary and so often kept a secret, the FDA doesn’t regulate the products and they only test them if there’s a safety issue reported.
There’s also a huge lack of data on tattoos' impact on our health. A lot of the research that’s out there is often done using animal models, so generalising results to humans doesn’t really work. Plus, figuring out long-term effects is hard without a huge sample of people who are tracked over a long period of time—and there is very little of that type of research out there.
“We cannot ignore the potential risks [of all tattoos],” Laux says. “We don’t know about the potential long-term effects of tattooing.”