Why You Shouldn’t Get Your Beauty-Related Science from Newspapers (Especially Bad Ones)
I came across a tweet that explains, well… rather a lot about how science-related beauty myths gain traction. It transcribes an ad placed by the Sun on ResponseSource requesting anyone who will say that tattoos cause cancer. If you are willing to make such a statement, the Sun promises to pay you and plug whatever organization you like in their paper.
Media Outlet: the Sun
Freelance Journalist: Matthew Barbour
Query: Further to my last request, I also now urgently need an expert who will say tattoos can give you cancer. We can plug any relevant organization, give copy approval and pay a fee. Please get back to me asap if you can help.
I can’t even come up with a way to paraphrase that that is any more damning than the text itself. According to the Sun: Who gives a shit what the science is? They have a scary article to write, goddamn it!
Okay, first of all, the obvious part: there is no actual empirical evidence linking tattoos and the development of cancer. There are, however, a shitload of incredibly unreliable news sources with misleading, fear-mongering headlines that suggest otherwise. Here’s what I get when I google search “tattoos cancer”:
Scientists have been studying the association between tattoos and skin cancer for decades. For decades, you guys. There has never been a study that has demonstrated evidence of an increase in skin cancer prevalence among tattooed individuals.
I read these stupid-ass articles and they are so full of holes you could use them as a colander. They are citing a new study suggesting that nanoparticles may be found in small concentrations in tattoo ink. This is fine… there is nothing wrong with this research. It becomes a problem, though, when you start throwing in the “and that will give you cancer” bit. They are jumping through so many steps to get to “TATTOOS=CANCER” even though we have already done the research and we already know that they do not.
If you keep track of unreliable British newspapers, you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that the Daily Mail Fail was the worst offender, with quotes like, “Scientists warn ‘no doubt substances can be toxic”. What? What? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!
Care2 even throws in some weird non-sequitur where they link to FDA warnings about tattoos. The link, which you can read here, basically says, “Go to clean tattoo parlors or you may be at risk for bacterial infections.” This has nothing to do with cancer. It just sounds scary. (And gives advice that most of us already know! Of course you should go to a clean tattoo parlor!)
The Sun‘s query, which requests someone who will be willing to tell them something that is empirically untrue, shows how articles like this get written. Journalists who do not understand the science request people who will tell them a specific story regardless of the evidence. Many of us know better than to get our news from sources like the Daily Mail and the Sun… but these papers have huge reader bases. People see this, latch onto it, and a beauty myth is created.
As for tattoos and skin cancer? According to SkinCancer.org, here is what you need to know: “It is never a good idea… to have a tattoo placed too close to or within a mole (nevus). Changes occurring in a mole — symmetry, border, color, size, shape, texture — are potentially key warning signs that the lesion may be evolving into a melanoma or another skin cancer, so make sure all moles are left completely visible, or it could delay
detection.” Other than that, guys: tattoo away.