I have had several people have asked me “can laser tattoo removal can cause cancer?” I wasn’t entirely sure, so I got a group of very experienced laser tattoo removal operators to answer the question resulting in some interesting comments.
The first thing someone pointed out to me was, is what is the ‘right’ question! Thomas Sembt suggested a better question should be… “to what extent does light influence the molecular structure of tattoo pigments and can generated fission products trigger cancer in the body?” Gosh, now I do not even understand the question!
I will try and keep it simple, although we do also have to consider that ‘cancer’ can pop up in many parts of the body, including skin cancer.
The first time I was asked “can laser tattoo removal cause cancer?” I was attending a tattoo convention and a tattooist approached me and stated he would never have laser tattoo removal because when his boss got it, he also got cancer. My thoughts at the time were, while he might have gotten cancer when having laser treatments, the cancer was probably not directly caused by the light of the laser beam.
On further reflection, there are three possible ways that laser tattoo removal could cause cancer.
- The actual laser beam itself (Possible but not probable)
- The potential toxins from the ink being released (and if a large area of ink is released in a single session then the ink may stay in the organs, like liver and kidneys)
- The laser directed on the ink caused mutagenesis changes in the chemical compound of the ink making it is even more toxic than before treatment
I suspect that the tattooist’s boss is probably covered in tattoos. Have you ever met a tattooist who is not? There are many toxic compounds found in inks, and anyone of them could possibly cause cancer anywhere in the body. It could well be that the cancer cells were already quietly bubbling away undetected due to the ink being released naturally by the body while it is trying to rid itself of ink.
Just a side note… the body continues to see tattoos as a wound even 20-30 years after having the tattoo so it is continually mopping up any small ink particles it can, this process lasts for the life of your tattoo or until you die, whichever comes first.
The laser operator may have treated too large an area in one treatment. The accepted safe industry recommendations for the maximum area to be treated at a single treatment is about the size of a beer coaster. Any bigger than that and you have the risk of overwhelming the body’s lymphatic system with ink. There is a possibility that there is so much ink being released that the body can’t process it and it sits in the lymphatic system, liver and kidneys. There is certainly a chance the client could go into toxic shock and possibly even develop cancer but according to Jason Kirkpatrick from HTown Lasers “I would say no (to can laser tattoo removal cause cancer?), laser treatments have been around since the 70s with no evidence to prove that. Without researching I am sure that there are some claims, but I’d bet you could say the same about everything from McDonald’s to cell phones.” www.htownlasers.com
Mike Murphy, one of the Laser and IPL guys agreed,“The answer is ‘very unlikely’. We use wavelengths at the ‘right’ end of the spectrum – the red end. These photons are relatively low in power compared with blue photons, and, as such, much less likely to induce mutagenesis changes in cells.
My friend investigated this in the mid-1980s. She found zero evidence of any such changes in cells following high energy QS Ruby laser treatments.” www.dermalasetraining.com
Heidi Smith from Blank Canvas Lasers in the UK says “From the many studies that have been conducted, there is currently no evidence to suggest that laser tattoo removal can cause cancer as the light used in this treatments does not cause cellular damage. Clients are more at risk by not using adequate protection from the sun’s harmful rays. I do however always advise clients who have tattoos faded for cover ups NOT to have their new ones placed over larger moles wherever possible as it would be impossible to monitor any changes in the mole over the years if there were any. I also think it’s important that Laser Operators complete.” www.blankcanvaslasers.co.uk
There are instances where laser tattoo removal and cancer really can be uttered in the same sentence, and that is when someone has a lesion develop under their ink. A real risk for the heavily tattooed. If skin cancer develops, they may not notice until it is very well developed and has possibly spread to other areas of the body. If a laser were directed at an active skin cancer then possibly, it could stimulate the existing cancer cells.
Dr Tom Lister’s comments could well fall into # 2, “Lasers at 532 nm wavelengths and above have not been shown through theoretical or anecdotal means to directly cause cancer, despite millions of treatments being carried out each year. There have been one or two of studies published where cancer has been found after QS laser treatment, but these are likely to be coincidental.
Overtreatment can lead to scarring and scarred tissue is more sensitive to UV from the sun. I recall some papers discussing small amount of scarring in the upper layers of the dermis following routine tattoo removal treatments but I’m really thinking about visible scarring. Thus, in theory I would think that there is a slight increase in risk of cancer for these clients.
The greatest risk, in my opinion, is from the release of tattoo pigment into the skin and through the lymphatic system. There is evidence that tattoo pigment remains in lymph nodes following laser treatment. My understanding is that there is no standardisation or regulation of pigments used in tattoo ink. Most inks are thought to remain coated with a layer of oil once injected into the skin and therefore are not exposed directly to tissue (until we laser them). There are certainly plenty of reports of allergic reactions to tattoo ink following laser treatment and so it may follow that any carcinogenic pigments are likely to create a risk.
The other thing that I think is important to consider is pre-existing cancer. This could be hidden by a tattoo and revealed upon presentation to the practitioner or after some fading of the ink. It would be great if all laser practitioners had some awareness of the signs of skin cancer as I’m sure this would be beneficial to a small proportion of clients.” www.drtomlister.com
Thomas Sembt from Germany added this thought to expand on # 3 “…, molecularly altered pigment debris could lead to mutagenesis changes. We know about the changes in carbon black and the PAHs it contains, so that they can develop aromatic amines under the influence of light. These are potentially cancerous. Pigment blue:15, red and green also show harmful substances when exposed to light and laser. BUT, it is important to mention: The dose makes the poison! And we still know next to nothing about the influence of additives that are mixed in tattoo inks under laser bombardment. If anybody asks me: Can laser tattoo removal cause cancer? Perhaps, however, it will hardly be possible to provide and exact derivation. But the risk is very low.” https://www.facebook.com/DocTattooentfernung
So what is the answer, to Can Laser Tattoo Removal Cause Cancer? Some of the most experienced laser tattoo removal professionals in the business have taken the time to answer the question and to be honest, we still really don’t know but on the balance of probability, the answer is probably not. What do you think?
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