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Tattoo complications surprisingly common

A new survey from NYU Langone Medical Center finds a surprising number of people with tattoos experience skin problems that can last for months or even years
Tattoos can cause long-term complications 01:27

Tattoos are increasingly common and becoming more widely accepted. Surveys show roughly one in 5 adults in the U.S. now have tattoos, and many have more than one.

But with the increasing numbers also come more complications. A new study of people with tattoos in New York City found up to 6 percent suffered significant problems such as a rash, itching or swelling that lasted longer than four months. In some cases, the problems persisted for years.

"We were rather alarmed at the high rate of reported chronic complications tied to getting a tattoo," said Dr. Marie Leger, lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Tattoos: Putting the art in body art 04:58

Leger said she was surprised by some of her findings, which are published in the journal Contact Dermatitis. About 10 percent of the approximately 300 people surveyed had some sort of short-term complication with their tattoos.

"A lot of the things that we are seeing don't have to do with sterility, or anything like that," Leger said. "They have more to do with the components in the ink and people's bodies' reactions to them."

For milder skin reactions, treatment with anti-inflammatory steroids is often used. But for more severe reactions, Leger said laser surgery to remove several layers of the skin may be necessary. The side effects can range from scars to itching and emotional distress.

Red and black ink, which are the two most common tattoo ink colors, were also the biggest offenders. But what exactly about the inks triggered a reaction is hard to pinpoint.

"It is not yet known if the reactions being observed are due to chemicals in the ink itself or to other chemicals, such as preservatives or brighteners, added to them, or to the chemicals' breakdown over time," said Leger.

Leger said she would like to see a national database for reporting complications with tattoos so the issues can be tracked and addressed.

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