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  • Review Article
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Current knowledge of the degradation products of tattoo pigments by sunlight, laser irradiation and metabolism: a systematic review


The popularity of tattooing has increased significantly over recent years. This has raised concerns about the safety of tattoo inks and their metabolites/degradation products. The photolytic and metabolic degradation of tattoo pigments may result in the formation of toxic compounds, with unforeseen health risks. A systematic literature review was undertaken to determine the current state of knowledge of tattoo pigments’ degradation products when irradiated with sunlight, laser light or metabolised. The review demonstrates that there is a lack of knowledge regarding tattoo pigment degradation/metabolism, with only eleven articles found pertaining to the photolysis of tattoo pigments and two articles on the metabolism of tattoo pigments. The limited research indicates that the photolysis of tattoo pigments could result in many toxic degradation products, including hydrogen cyanide and carcinogenic aromatic amines.

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Fig. 1: Example structures of the three primary pigment types.
Fig. 2: The literature search protocol.
Fig. 3: Reported Metabolites of Pigment Yellow 74.

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The authors would Like to acknowledge Deborah Westland (CEO of the Australian College of Laser Therapy) for discussing the tattoo laser removal process. The authors would also like to acknowledge Associate Professor Ingo Koeper and Maximillian Mann from Flinders University (Bedford Park, South Australia) for their aid in translating articles written in German. The authors would like to thank the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment for providing an Australian Research Training Program Scholarship to TRF.

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Correspondence to Claire E. Lenehan.

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Fraser, T.R., Ross, K.E., Alexander, U. et al. Current knowledge of the degradation products of tattoo pigments by sunlight, laser irradiation and metabolism: a systematic review. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 32, 343–355 (2022).

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