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To tattoo or not to?

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ISSUE Tattoos may increase risk of skin cancer, says study

Tattooing, so popular among the young, can increase the risk of skin cancer, say doctors.

According to doctors, inks used in tattoos may contain toxic elements, which can cause skin cancer, especially blue ink, the age-old colour of choice for tattoo artists, which has cobalt and aluminium. Red ink may have mercurial sulphide and certain coloured inks often contain lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel, titanium and other heavy metals.

“The equipment used in tattooing and body piercing, if contaminated with infected blood, can risk transmission of blood-borne viruses such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C and various skin cancers such as squamous cell, carcinoma and melanoma,” D.J.S Tula, consultant plastic surgeon at Delhi’s B.L.K. Hosptial, says. “Everyone who gets a tattoo doesn’t get skin cancer. But they have increased risk as most tattooists use ink which is arsenic. Many people don’t realise the damage tattoos cause to their skin. They want them for a lifetime. Certain designs are deep penetrated into the skin and damage muscles,” Tula adds. Experts also say that a tattoo should not be done near a mole (nevus). “One needs to know the changes occurring in a mole — symmetry, border, colour, size, shape and texture. If there is a tattoo around it or on it, the key warning signs on the mole cannot be noticed and it might later evolve into melanoma or another skin cancer,” oncologist Amit Kumar says.

“One should choose a hygienic place for a tattoo where needles are properly sterilised. Tattoos between the mid ribs and upper shoulders should be avoided,” says Jane Ruth, a dermatologist. Other fairly common skin risks associated with tattoos include allergic reactions to certain tattoo inks. But infection just after a tattoo can be treated with antibiotics.

Experts also say that there are risks involved in removing tattoos such as hypopigmentation (loss of skin colour) and as hyperpigmentation (skin darkening) where the tattoo was.

On the contrary, tattooists claim that tattoos do not lead to skin cancer or other blood-borne disease.

“One should go to a professional tattooist. A professional will use only organic inks. The best inks are imported from the U.S., Britain and Australia. Some inks available at cheap rates in the market might be harmful,” says Anu Singh, who owns a tattoo parlour.

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