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Pyrolysis GC/MS

Tattoo Ink: A Closer Look

| Author / Editor: GUIDO DEUßING* / Dr. Ilka Ottleben

Fig. 1: Scientists from the Federal German Institute for Risk Assessment and Consumer Safety have analysed healthy risks by tattoo removal using laser radiation.
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Fig. 1: Scientists from the Federal German Institute for Risk Assessment and Consumer Safety have analysed healthy risks by tattoo removal using laser radiation. (Source: Gerstel/Fotolia - Africa Studio [M]_Scheer)

Tattoo removal using laser radiation can carry health risks depending on the breakdown products formed. Scientists have now shown that pyrolysis GC/MS can be used to simulate the breakdown process and determine the compounds formed from a given ink during laser treatment. Phthalocyanine blue (B15:3), for example, was shown to form a cell poison in the process.

There can be very good reasons to have a tattoo removed: An allergic reaction to the pigments used; a different motif may be required, commensurate with age and experience; the name embedded in your skin may no longer be the love of your life; older images may have faded or not look as good as they once did due to the aging canvas; or the tattoo may stand in the way of your next career move. In the past, having such a permanent fixture removed required the use of a scalpel or etching or sanding of the skin — an unpleasant process. Fortunately for those suffering from tattoo remorse, techniques have recently become available to remove tattoos relatively gently without leaving visible scars or traces.

Laser treatment is preferred but it is not without risk

It may be a gentler treatment than previous generations of tattoos had to endure, but using a laser could entail certain health risks. At least that is what a joint study by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and Consumer Safety and the Laser Department of the Elisabeth Hospital points to. Both are located in Berlin, Germany. The study was published in “Scientific Reports”[1]. In it, Ines Schreiver, Christoph Hutzler, Peter Laux, Hans-Peter Berlien and Andreas Luch report that toxic and even carcinogenic compounds are formed during laser treatment of the copper-containing tattoo pigment phthalocyanine blue (B 15:3). The scientists simulated the fragmentation process using pyrolysis GC/MS and compared the fragments formed with laser breakdown products determined by Dynamic Headspace (DHS) separate experiment involving two-dimensional GC coupled with Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (TOF-MS). Among the compounds determined were: 1,2-Benzenedicarbonitrile (BDCN), benzonitrile (BCN), 2-butanone, benzene, and hydrogen cyanide as the main fragmentation products.

Laser radiation meets tattoo pigments

In clinical dermatology, ruby lasers are regularly used to treat pigmented spots, i.e. liver spots and to remove tattoos. According to the scientists, radiating the skin with a ruby laser can lead to temperatures of more than 1000 °C in the skin. To break down the relatively stable color pigment phthalocyanine blue (B15:3), temperatures in excess of 800 °C are required. Bleaching of what is apparently the only blue tattoo pigment available to dermal needle workers is assumed to be the result of a thermally induced chemical breakdown process (photo-thermolysis) equivalent to an atomization of the pigment, Schreiver et al. report. To avoid damaging the skin at the high temperatures generated during laser treatment, the energy rich laser light cannot be allowed to emit continuously, but only in discrete, time-limited pulses. The ruby laser has a high pulse energy level making it well suited for medical skin treatment purposes. The efficiency of laser treatment in breaking down tattoo pigments is well proven. It can be observed directly by the ink pigment bleaching effect during treatment. Less clear is the exact identity and quantity of the resulting chemical derivatives and their long-term effect on the human organism. To shine a light on this matter was the stated goal of Schreiver et al. In order to imitate the laser induced, temperature dependent decomposition of the blue pigment copper phthalocyanine blue (B 15:3), pyrolysis — GC/MS was used among other techniques.

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