New Study Links Tattoos With Increased Risk of Blood Cancer

New Study Links Tattoos With Increased Risk of Blood Cancer

A new study suggests a link between tattoos and an increased risk of developing malignant lymphoma, a blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system.

The claim comes from research published in May in the journal eClinicalMedicine, which found that having a tattoo was associated with 21% higher odds of a lymphoma diagnosis.

Tattoos have grown in popularity in recent years—in the United States, 23% of people said they had a tattoo in 2010, compared to 32% in 2023—and researchers have become increasingly interested in investigating how they affect the body.

“The study suggests that tattoos may be a risk factor for malignant lymphoma that is actionable from a public health perspective,” the authors concluded.

The study only established a correlation and doesn’t assert that tattoos cause lymphoma. Still, some experts uninvolved in the study cautioned against making too much of the results.

Here’s what you need to know about the potential link between tattoos and cancer. 

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Some previous evidence has suggested a loose connection between tattoos and cancer.

For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified some chemicals found in tattoo ink, such as primary aromatic amines, as carcinogenic or potentially carcinogenic, though mostly only when ingested, inhaled, or applied on top of the skin. 

Studies have also shown that pigment from tattoos ends up being filtered by and stored in the lymph nodes, where some lymphoma cases begin.

It’s against this backdrop that Nielsen and her colleagues sought to understand more about the long-term effects of tattoo ink.

They used the Swedish National Cancer Register, a national health database, to identify every case of malignant lymphoma diagnosed in about 12,000 people aged 20 to 60 between 2007 and 2017. Then, they compared the data to answers from a questionnaire they distributed in 2021, which asked people if they had tattoos and, if so, how many and how large an area the ink covered. 

In total, about 20% of people had tattoos. Researchers discovered that having a tattoo was associated with about 21% increased odds of lymphoma, with the size of the tattoo having no influence on a person’s risk.

Lymphoma was highest in people who had gotten a tattoo less than two years before their diagnosis. That risk decreased until 11 years between tattooing and diagnosis, when it rose again.

Lymphoma affects the part of the body that helps your immune system fight off infections. There are two types: non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which accounts for about 4% of cancer diagnoses in the U.S., and Hodgkin lymphoma, which is even more uncommon.

“It is important to keep in mind that lymphoma is a very rare disease,” the study’s lead author, Christel Nielsen, PhD, associate professor in the division of occupational and environmental medicine at Lund University in Sweden, told Health. “The increase relates to a baseline risk that is very low.”

There’s no reason to panic if you have a tattoo or are considering getting one, said experts interviewed.

Some environmental factors do indeed raise the chances of cancer. In the case of lymphoma, a weakened immune system and exposure to chemicals such as benzene and some herbicides are known risk factors. 

However, Marc Hoffmann, MD, director of the lymphoma program in the division of hematologic malignancies and cellular therapeutics at the University of Kansas Cancer Center, told Health that you need significant evidentiary support to determine that a particular environmental exposure triggers cancerous cells.

The links between cancer and smoking or nuclear radiation exposure, for example, “are dramatic and undeniable,” he said. But that clear connection has not been established for tattoos, he added. 

In fact, two previous studies that investigated whether there’s a link between tattoos and lymphoma didn’t find one. 

Catherine Diefenbach, MD, a hematologist–oncologist at NYU Langone in New York, told Health that she’s even skeptical about the most recent study’s conclusions.

The finding that there was a heightened risk of lymphoma within two years of getting a tattoo and then again after 11 years doesn’t add up, she said.

“The other thing that doesn’t make sense is if this is a toxin that gets put into the body through ink, there isn’t an association between the size of the tattoo and cancer risk,” she said. The “study does raise questions, but the majority of patients with tattoos don’t develop lymphoma.”

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