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Do Tattoos Increase the Risk for Cancer?

Swedish epidemiologists suspect that tattoos increase the risk for lymphoma, but call for more research to confirm causality.

Tattoos have become a popular fashion statement. It is estimated that about 20% of Swedes and 30% of American adults now have tattoos. This body art makes an esthetic statement and often conveys explicit values statements as well. However, the wide range of pigments used in tattoos have not been studied thoroughly. Could tattoos increase the risk for certain conditions such as cancer?

Health Effects of Tattoos:

Scientists are only now beginning to study the health effects of long-term exposure to tattooing. Some tattoo inks contain carcinogenic chemicals, and the immune reaction to tattoos frequently moves these compounds from the skin into the lymph nodes.

The Swedish Research Council funded a large case-control study (eClinical Medicine, The Lancet, June 2024). It involved nearly 12,000 individuals, including both those with malignant lymphoma and healthy people matched for age and sex. Twenty-one percent of those with lymphomas had tattoos, compared to 18 percent of the control subjects.

Tattoos Increase the Risk for Cancer:

The investigators report that people with tattoos were 21% more likely to have malignant lymphoma. According to the statistical analysis, the risk of lymphoma was higher within a few years of the first tattoo. Although the researchers did not detect an increased risk in the mid-term, people who had gotten tattoos more than a decade earlier also had a higher risk of lymphoma (about 19%). The amount of skin covered in tattoos did not seem to affect the risk.

Diffuse B-cell lymphoma showed the strongest association. According to these epidemiologists, the study does not establish causation.

However, they note that it

“underscores the importance of regulatory measures to control the chemical composition of tattoo ink.”

In summary, they conclude,

“Our findings suggested that tattoo exposure was associated with an increased risk of malignant lymphoma. More epidemiologic research is urgently needed to establish causality.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Nielsen C et al, "Tattoos as a risk factor for malignant lymphoma: a population-based case–control study." eClinical Medicine, The Lancet, June 2024. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2024.102649
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