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.



1. I read your blog quite a lot, and I love the reviews! You’re excellent!

I wanted to respond, though, because I hope I can condemn what this man did. I’m a journalism major (going into Public Relations, but I know how to write) and what this journalist did is incredibly damning in the industry. Part of being a journalist is getting your hands dirty and digging through research — not putting out an advertisement and hoping an expert walks in your front door! It’s just ridiculous, what he did. If you’re having that much trouble finding an expert, YOU DIG HARDER, and if one doesn’t exist then you don’t use one and submit your story to The Sun or The National Enquirer, because you’ll be laughed out of the boardroom.

Or you don’t write the freakin’ story. Because there is no story.

On the note of “hacks”: It’s hard to really defend my industry without faltering. There are terrible, awful journalists and public relations officials out there, but the majority are good people who try to good work.

Finally, the only way I thought tattoos could possibly correlate with cancer is through skin cancer: you’re more likely to show it off and not cover the skin with anything, which can lead to it. And even then, I don’t think I know anybody dumb enough to go out with an uncovered tattoo for a prolonged period of time.

2. “There are terrible, awful journalists and public relations officials out there, but the majority are good people who try to good work.”

Oh, I definitely agree! Just the terrible ones are the ones that start fear-mongering myths…

3. This also happens in the legal field. “Experts” make advertisements that they will testify a certain way. The ones who testify over and over usually end up always testifying for either the Plaintiff or Defendant every time, since they basically do not change their testimony from case to case. It all comes down to how much you’re willing to pay to get them to testify in a way that’s beneficial for you. Unfortunately juries seriously eat expert testimony up, so its very very bad that this happens. They’re called testifying whores for a reason.

4. Speaking of terrible people starting fear-mongering myths.. I just wanted to share this video with you and your readers! It’s pretty old so you’ve probably seen it but it’s super interesting

5. Anyone who is interested in bullshit, either beauty or medical, should look up Ben Goldacre. His book ‘Bad Science’ is really easy to read and breaks down a lot of advertising crap. Well worth a read!

6. She’ll be adorable forever. Just wanted to mention my site skin tightening treatments. Thanks yall.

7. Yes, tattoos increases the risk of skin cancer. It is really very harmful for the skin. If you are a lover of tattoos, so first visit Skin Cancer Clinic Melbourne and consult with doctor that what to do and take precautions, so that in the future you will not face any problem.