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UK to investigate health risks for tattoo ink after EU ban

The UK government is to investigate the health risks of tattoo inks after the EU banned a range of substances used in pigments because they are dangerous.

The ban, which took effect Monday, has sparked a crisis in the tattoo industry across the bloc, with industry associations warning it will “criminalize” artists and threaten the entire industry, which is already reeling from closures due to the pandemic lockdowns.

The law won’t apply to the UK as it came into effect after Brexit was sealed in January 2020, but it represents one of the first tests of Britain’s approach to regulating laws that affect consumers since it gained independence of the block.

The law restricts the use of certain chemicals that the EU considers dangerous, some of which are linked to cancer, reproductive problems and skin irritation, and which are included in mixtures for tattoo ink and permanent make-up.

An estimated 54 million people across the EU have tattoos and the industry had a year to prepare for the ban.

Tattoo artist Tin-Tin, who heads the French tattoo industry union SNAT, told Reuters the new rules would drive people to salons that don’t respect the law. “It’s ridiculous. It’s like getting the flour from a bakery, it’s that stupid. If we don’t have colors or ink to work with, what are we going to work with?” he said.

Dolores Murray, owner of Wild Cat Ink in Dublin, told RTÉ radio in Ireland that the ban would affect around 4,000 substances used in tattoo inks, including isopropyl alcohol, a disinfecting lotion used in them.

She read a statement from the European Society of Tattoo Pigment Research stating that the ban was insufficiently substantiated and would lead to the criminalization of tattooists. “What we’re looking for is some time to try and fix this whole mess,” she said.

An employee at a London tattoo parlor said they had heard of the ban but had been given “no information” on whether or not it would apply in the UK after Brexit.

The EU laws until January 2020 are incorporated into national law, but those that have been agreed since then are not. However, the UK said it would take into account the scientific research in the EU.

Ink flasks at the Tin-Tin tattoo studio in Paris. Photo: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is responsible for the registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals in the UK (UK Reach), said: “UK Reach enables the UK to make their own decisions about the regulation of chemicals based on the best available scientific evidence to ensure that chemicals are used and managed safely.

“The government has asked the Health and Safety Executive to [HSE] to prepare a dossier to assess the risk of certain substances in tattoo inks and consider introducing any restrictions,” the spokesperson said.

The UK government last March asked the HSE to consider the matter before imposing any restrictions.

Defra said this was because the ink in tattoos can sometimes cause health effects, most commonly skin reactions, such as irritation or sensitivity. It added that the restriction proposal “will take into account … but not limited to substances that can cause cancer, are hazardous to reproduction, skin sensitisers and irritants”.

It would submit its draft restriction files in spring 2022, after which a public consultation would take place, it said. Defra added that if evidence showed an unacceptable risk to human health, it would ban certain inks.