Tattoos and cancer may be linked

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 5, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A new study has found an association between tattoo exposure and malignant lymphoma.

  • Whether or not the association also shows a causality is unclear.

Getting a tattoo may increase your risk of cancer, according to a new study that found an association between having a tattoo and malignant lymphoma. Researchers noted that the association did not prove causation, and more studies will be needed to fully understand the connection.[]

The researchers conducted a case-control study to evaluate “all incident cases of malignant lymphoma” diagnosed between 2007 and 2017 in adults ages 20 through 60 who were listed in the Swedish National Cancer Register. They also included “three random age- and sex-matched controls per case.” Researchers then sent a questionnaire to subjects to inquire about their tattoo history. They sent these questionnaires to 11,905 people and received 5,591 responses.

After collecting responses, researchers learned that 21% of respondents with cancer had a tattoo, while about 18% of control participants also had a tattoo. Researchers also found that lymphoma risks were highest in people with less than 2 years between their first tattoo and the index year, and that risks did not increase for tattoos of larger sizes. 

In the study’s background, the researchers wrote that “the popularity of tattoos has increased dramatically over the last few decades,” and that tattoo ink can contain carcinogenic chemicals that can enter the lymph nodes. The long-term health effects of the tattooing process, however, “remain unexplored.”

Wael Harb, MD, a board-certified hematologist and medical oncologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast and Saddleback Medical Centers in Orange County, CA, says that the study highlights the need for more research on tattooing and cancer risks. 

 The researchers “highlight concerns about the presence of carcinogenic chemicals in tattoo inks, suggesting that further research is needed to explore potential links to other cancers,” Dr. Harb says. 

However, “causality cannot be conferred from this single epidemiologic study, and more research is needed to establish a definitive link,” Dr. Harb adds. Additionally, it is important to remember that the study “focused primarily on malignant lymphoma and its subtypes, and did not find evidence of an increased risk for other types of cancers specifically linked to tattoos.” Findings should therefore not be taken out of context when discussing other cancers.  

More research is needed

When conducting further research on the topic, it will be important for researchers to “disentangle the effects of tattoos from related lifestyle factors” in order to better understand where risks are coming from, Dr. Harb says. While the study adjusted for several lifestyle factors, like smoking and socioeconomic status, there may be other lifestyle factors to account for in future reviews, he adds.

Dr. Harb says that he hopes researchers continue to expand this investigation by looking into more aspects of the tattoo/cancer association, including long-term health effects of tattoo inks, potential carcinogenic effects of specific chemicals found in tattoo inks—including after laser tattoo removal—more detailed investigations into connections between tattoos and different lymphoma subtypes, the role that tattoo infection might play in cancer risks, and further epidemiologic research to establish causality (should it exist).

What this means for you

A study found an association between tattoos and malignant lymphoma. The findings suggest that tattoos may increase risks for this type of cancer, but the research was not strong enough to prove causality.

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