By Jim Mendoza
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates 45 million people in the country have a single tattoo or multiple tattoos that cover larger areas of skin.
That's Scotty Bender's specialty.
"A full back - I've done a few of those. And a lot of sleeves and leg sleeves," he said.
Bender plies his trade at Skin Deep Tattoo in Waikiki, the oldest tattoo shop on Oahu. It took 35 hours and a lot of ink to finish the multi-colored mural on Nic Crawford's left arm.
"It's gorgeous. I love it. It's my favorite piece," she said.
Amidst the growing popularity of tattoos is a growing concern.
The FDA is now debating whether chemicals and dyes in tattoo inks should be regulated. It recently began studying the compounds in tattoo ink. The agency said black ink contains benzo(a) pyrene, known to cause skin cancer in animal tests.
"Investigating these things is appropriate," said Dr. Kevin Dawson, a dermatologist who also works with the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.
He said the popularity of tattoos demands close scrutiny of compounds in tattoo inks and how the body absorbs them.
"They're mixing colors. They're adding things. I think with the change they should continue to investigate to make sure that they're putting safe chemicals in them," he said.
Veteran tattoo artist Bill Funk said the FDA last scrutinized tattoo ink in 2005. The agency found no reason to regulate the product. It acted because of 150 complaints of allergic reactions to tattoos.
"I don't think there's any data that can ever establish cause and effect," Funk said. "I would estimate that more than likely, we probably as tattoo artists did about 150 million procedures that year."
Funk said if the FDA suspects tattoo ink could cause skin cancer it should re-examine other products it approves.
"Skin lotions, sun blocks, lipstick, tooth paste, soaps, shampoos. These all have the same pigments that we use in our industry in our inks," he said.
Dawson has treated patients with skin irritations from tattoos but never a case of skin cancer linked to body ink.
He anticipates the FDA will conclude tattoo ink is safe. Still, he warns that people with body art, especially those with large tattoos, should check their skin thoroughly.
"When you have that kind of camouflage, that kind of decoration over the skin, you may not be noticing a mole that's changing or a new dark spot that happens to be next to a dark part of the tattoo, that you just didn't realize was there," he said.
Funk said the FDA should refocus from ink to the internet, where unregulated companies sell tattoo supplies to unlicensed artists.
"We have suppliers that are popping up in third-world and developing nations that are selling equipment and supplies and pigments and inks that don't have high-quality standards," he said.
Funk feels that's where the real danger lies, not in the ink reputable artists use to create their masterpieces.