Students' tattoo research getting plenty of ink
Two Northern Arizona University undergraduates are studying the ingredients of tattoos to learn whether there's more to them than meets the eye, and their work is getting the attention of major media outlets. (Links at end of this story.)

Chemistry majors Haley Finley-Jones and Leslie Wagner are studying the chemical makeup of ink used in tattoos to explore potential health risks. The students presented a poster on the topic March 13 during the 229th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Diego.

It's a project close to home; both students have tattoos.

"Tattoos have grown in popularity so much," Finley-Jones said, "but I don't think anyone is aware that the FDA doesn't regulate the tattoo process." The inks used in tattoos are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as cosmetics, but the FDA does not regulate tattoo inks for injection, nor does it regulate tattooing itself.

"It's preliminary, but it's exciting that no other research like this is going on," Finley-Jones said.

They are hoping to characterize the diversity of tattoo inks and to determine if any inks pose health threats in the form of heavy metals or other dangerous chemicals. "This project has been spearheaded by Haley and Leslie," said Jani Ingram, associate professor of chemistry and director of the research project. "I have provided guidance and assistance with collecting analytical data, but they have really been the ones collecting inks and information pertaining to the tattoo industry. It has been great watching them dig in to the science."

Wagner said the research into the composition of tattoo inks began in the fall semester during a casual conversation about tattoos. She said the research with Finley-Jones and Ingram has shown there is much variation in the manufacturing process, within brands and colors of ink. Unlike the ingredients that are required to be listed on topical cosmetic products, the various inks used do not have to have ingredients listed. So far, they have found that some inks have as many as 14 elements in them, with some instances of lead. But just how much of these elements exist in the inks has yet to be measured. Gathering quantitative data is the next step.

Neither student is worried about the tattoos she has, but there may be a health concern during the removal process, when the ink can break down. Still, both students stress that their research is preliminary, and, as Wagner puts it, "it's nice to be working on something students are interested in. But we're just scratching the surface."

Elsewhere in NAU's chemical research arena, Chemical and Engineering News reports on the work of professor Richard Foust, Jr., professor of chemistry, and graduate student Jeevanthie Senanayake, on arsenic and its possible role in the disappearance of the Sinagua from the Verde Valley hundreds of years ago.

Several other NAU researchers -- professors and students -- had work presented at the ACS conference: associate professor Diana Elder Anderson, Logan Becker, Shanadeen Begay, Mary Brandstrom, Jennifer Broyles, Jonathan Cooper, Molly Costanza-Robinson, professor Richard D. Foust, professor William Grabe, Brad Horn, Shannon Hyslop, associate professor Marin S. Robinson, Samuel Salinas, Jeevanthie Senanayake, associate professor Fredricka L. Stoller, Jennifer Tipton and associate professor Tim Vail.

For coverage of the tattoo ink research, go here
You can read the NAU press release at