Cosmetic Tattooing & MRI’s - Diametric Particle Agitation Hypothesis (DPA)

by Andrea Darby - Master Medical Tattooist & Industry Educator
MRI Machine

A Cosmetic Tattooist may encounter questions from clients about the possible effects on their tattoos when undergoing Magnetic Resonance Imaging tests (MRI), due to various media reports and internet publications that have referred to adverse effects.
This article will attempt to shed some light on the topic and presents the various hypothesis's for the reports within the medical literature.

▼ Continue Reading ▼


MRI’s may be referred to variously as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMRI), or Magnetic Resonance Tomography (MRT).

An MRI is a medical imaging test designed to provide a computerised image of internal body structures which can also be printed onto a paper report or onto radiographer’s photographic film (an x-ray type image). Unlike an x-ray test the MRI machine does not use an ionizing radiation source to create the image instead the MRI uses extremely powerful rotating magnetic fields.

By creating the rotating magnetic fields the scanner is able to compile cross sectional images of body structures which may provide an alternative diagnostic approach to other tests such as x-rays and ultrasounds.

MRI of the Brain

MRI of the Brain

You are most likely aware that compounds containing iron are strongly attracted to a magnetic field and that they can easily become magnetised, however most substances will produce a magnetic field in the presence of a strong magnetic source. This is what provides the MRI the ability to create an image of the body by scanning and recording the variations in the magnetic field when applied to the body structures.

Materials may exhibit a range of magnetic behaviour depending on the type of material and its temperature etc, three commonly described categories of magnetic classifications for materials are;

Ferromagnetic / ferrimagnetic – These are the materials that you would probably recognise as being affected by a magnet they usually contain ferrous compounds (iron/iron oxides etc), the effect of a magnetic field can be physically felt and the material is capable of retaining magnetization.

Paramagnetic – These materials show only a weak attraction to a magnet and the attraction is so small that special instruments are required to measure the force of the attraction because it is so weak. Some materials that can be classified as paramagnetic include platinum, aluminium and ferrofluids (fluids containing very small particles of ferro/ferrimagnetic materials).

Diamagnetic – These materials are repelled by both poles of a magnetic source and the strength of the repelling force depends upon the type of material and the strength of magnetic source that is applied. Some examples of diamagnetic materials are carbon and water although almost all substances that aren’t ferro/ferrimagnetic or paramagnetic are generally diamagnetic.

Cosmetic Tattoo Pigments & Body Art Inks

Compounds within cosmetic tattoo pigments and body art inks are solutions that frequently contain iron oxides and a variety of other non ferrous metal oxides such as titanium dioxide as well as glycerine, water, and sometimes carbon and other compounds, in addition cosmetic tattoo pigments and body art inks have been found to contain nano particles both in the bottle and after implantation into the skin1.

When first tattooed into the skin some of the water within the pigment would tend to be removed and pigment molecules become fixed into the upper level of the dermis by specialised cells called macrophages and fibroblasts.

Over a period of 4-6 weeks the compounds within the tattoo pigment would tend to concentrate slightly as fluid is removed into the lymphatic system and the pigment would most likely remain in thick paste like consistency surrounded by the bodies fixating immune cells. Due to the particle agglomeration and the robustness of the colourants they prove difficult for macrophages to break down ultimately a compromise is reached and a fibrin rich encapsulation/matrix surrounds the pigment resulting in long term pigment fixation within the skin. In spite of the 'fixation' compromise by macrophages they continue with attempts to break down of tattoo pigments by producing hydrogen peroxide.

When the tattoo pigment compounds are subjected to strong magnetic field, such as is applied by a MRI, theoretically there may be a range of magnetic properties within the tattoo pigments Ferromagnetic, Paramagnetic and Diamagnetic. The question of course is if the affect of the magnetic field on the pigment is likely to be any different to normal body tissue and if the affects are likely to be adverse effects.

Incidence of adverse reactions

The actual incidence of patients experiencing an adverse reaction to an MRI due to the presence of a cosmetic tattoo is unknown this is simply due the lack of availability of comprehensive statistical data. Anecdotally some MRI operators have reported that occasionally patients with body art tattoos and cosmetic tattoos have experienced some minor short term skin reactions after an MRI and more severe reactions have also been reported in a very small minority of cases.

In 2002 researchers W.D. Tope & F.G. Shellock conducted the following study;
Magnetic resonance imaging and permanent cosmetics (tattoos): survey of complications and adverse events.

The above researcher’s surveyed 1032 patients who had undergone MRI of those 135 had some type of permanent cosmetics prior to the MRI and only two of those (1.5%) experienced slight sensations of tingling and or burning, and in both cases the symptoms were only transient and it did not prevent the MRI from being performed.

However S. Ratnapalan, M. Greenberg and D. Armstrong reported in;
Tattoos and MRI
That an MRI had to be terminated after two attempts because the patient complained of a severe burning sensation from the tattoos on his back and upper arms.


William A. Wagle and Martin Smith reported in;
Tattoo-Induced Skin Burn During MR Imaging
That a 23 year old man sustained a second-degree skin burn at the site of two body art tattoos whilst undergoing cervical spine (neck) MRI.

One could easily assume that the cause of these and other cases related to iron oxides within the tattoo pigments perhaps due to interaction between the MRI and the ferro/ferrimagnetic compounds which as we know are potentially susceptible to strong attraction in the presence of the MRI magnetic fields. However there are other case reports of adverse reactions between MRI and tattoos with pigments that were shown not to contain ferro/ferrimagnetic compounds.

Tobias Franiel, Sein Schmidt and Randolf Klingebiel reported in;
First-Degree Burns on MRI due to Nonferrous Tattoos
That a 25 year old female patient experienced first degree burns to her eyelids during an interrupted  MRI of the cranium (head) and that the manufacturer's certificate of analysis of the tattoo pigment showed various heavy metals (e.g. lead, copper, zinc, chrome, arsenic, cadmium, barium, and mercury) but no ferric oxides.

This of course suggests that interactions between MRI and tattoos do not necessarily just relate to pigments that contain iron oxides that are ferro/ferrimagnetic compounds resulting in an attraction to the strong magnetic fields, because in the above instance the tattoo pigments were shown to be nonferrous, however it is also possible that the certificate of analysis might not have been accurate.

It is known that heavy metals such as lead and mercury are diamagnetic and lead can actually be made to levitate in the presence of a very strong magnetic field due to the strong repelling effect that can occur with some diamagnetic materials.

An obvious question and concern in the case reported above is why compounds containing arsenic, lead, barium and mercury were in a tattoo pigment in the first place and this highlights the importance of sourcing pigments from reputable manufacturers who manufacture using safer ingredients and whom disclose their full ingredient lists.

Digressing briefly; we note with some vague interest that the popular television program myth busters evaluated the unreferenced claim of exploding tattoos during MRI and their anecdotal testing results failed to produce any such effects.

During our own empirical experience we have not had a client, nor been informed of about any cosmetic tattooist who has had a client, who has complained of adverse effects from undergoing an MRI that was attributed to their cosmetic tattoos.

Within a presentation by Kasper K. Alsing at the European Congress on Tattoo and Pigment Research the author discussed the possibility that transient burning sensations during MRI scans in a small number of cases may be coincidental, research conducted at the The Tattoo Clinic, Bispebjerg Hospital Copenghagen Denmark found there was a minute but statistical significant increase in temperature in iron oxide pigments after subjecting them to MRI scan but not a sufficient increase to cause thermal skin burn, iron oxide pigments that were tested all contained metals with mixed magnetic properties. We note that the tattoo pigment was tested in vitro (not in vivo) which may affect the results but nonetheless the research was significant and the conclusion reached was "It is a myth that magnetic resonance imaging causes thermal burn as noted in the medical literature" (sic in patients with cosmetic tattoos)2.


Possible Cause of Burning Sensations (in isolated cases) During MRI

Hypothesis:  Diametric Particle Agitation (MRI-DPA) and or Accelerated Fenton's Reaction Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS).

It is possible that the cause of adverse sensations and effects such as tingling and burning of tattoos during some MRI tests is perhaps due to mixtures of compounds within the tattoo pigments possessing different magnetic properties and or accelerated redox reactions.

For example if various compounds within the tattoo pigment are ferro/ferrimagnetic and or paramagnetic (attracted by the magnetic field) and other compounds are diamagnetic (repelled by the magnetic field) then theoretically this may result in diametric agitation of the compounds within the skin and the production of heat resulting in cellular tissue damage either due to particle friction/rotation when under the influence of the strong magnetic fields of the MRI.

Nano particles of tattoo pigment within the skin may be clustered within agglomerates (smaller particle chemically bound into larger particles) and the nano particles within the agglomerates may also have differing magnetic properties.

The rotational magnetic field created by a MRI scanner may exert a magnetic pulse effect on the tattoo pigment exacerbating the frictional forces due to causing an on / off agitation of the pigment compounds caused by diametric forces on the particles in instances where the compounds contained differing magnetic properties, this could place agglomerates of nano particles with differing magnetic properties under rotational force resulting in some separation of the agglomerates.

Hydrogen peroxide produced by macrophages could also create an accelerated Fenton's type reaction with iron oxide nano particles in the presence of a rotating magnetic field as the iron oxide nanoparticles absorb the energy from the magnetic field and convert it into heat via Brownian relaxation (physical rotation of the particles) and Neel relaxation (rotation of the magnetic moment)3 , the generation of heat in this way using magnetic fluid thermal therapy for the treatment of cancer has been studied quite extensively4,5.

Creixell et al. demonstrated that nanoparticles can cause cellular destruction when exposed to an alternating magnetic field
6, in additional experiments it was demonstrated that the surface temperature of the nanoparticles was shown to instantly increase without an immediate increase in surrounding solution temperature7, they discovered that the localized heating from the nano particle surface is actually capable of altering surrounding chemistry.

Also Wydra et al. observed enhanced degradation of methylene blue by free radicals generated by iron oxide nanoparticles heated in an alternating magnetic field in the presence of hydrogen peroxide.

In short there is abundant information within the medical and scientific literature to support

  • Tattoo pigments with differing magnetic properties may be subjected to agglomerate separation forces in the presence of an alternating magnetic field.
  • Alternating magnetic fields can cause iron oxide particles to rotate via Brownian relaxation and Neel relaxation.
  • Nano particles of iron oxides can produce surface heat in the presence of an alternating magnetic field (Brownian relaxation and Neel relaxation).
  • An accelerated Fenton's type reaction can be created with iron oxide nano particles + hydrogen peroxide and accelerated by an alternating magnetic field (Fenton's type type reaction).
  • Nano particles of iron oxides can cause the degradation of hydrogen peroxide into free radicals (Redox) due to Fenton's type reaction.
  • Nano particles of iron oxides may agglomerate in the presence of an alternating magnetic field (potentially making any Fenton's type reaction self limiting in this circumstance due to reduction in surface area).

The diagram in Figure 2. below illustrates the potential for diametric forces created during MRI in instances where the tattoo pigment contains materials with a range of magnetic properties.

MRI Diametric Particle Agitation Hypothesis

Diametric Particle Agitation Hypothesis

Pigments containing high concentrations or large particles of iron oxide compounds may potentially also cause issues due to simple ferro/ferrimagnetic attraction or RF-induced electrical currents, there has been some suggestion that older tattoo pigments were more susceptible due to higher concentrations of iron oxide compounds and therefore older tattoos may be more susceptible to adverse effects, however we have been unable to find any verifiable evidence for this claim.

In the adverse cases that have been reported in the medical literature the patients sensation of skin heating/tingling and the incidences of first and second degree burns may be due to;

1) Frictional heat production during diametric nano particle agitation/rotation due to Brownian relaxation and Neel relaxation.

and or

2) Minor cellular tissue damage due to diametric/rotation forces forcing apart tattoo pigment agglomerates and or damaging cellular structures or the fixating fibrin encapsulation/matrix.

and or

3) Accelerated Fenton's type reactions between iron oxide nano particles and hydrogen peroxide produced by macrophages in the presence of a rotating magnetic field causing the creation of reactive oxygen species (ROS).


3) RF-induced electrical currents resulting in tissue heating.


4) Other unidentified or unrelated causes (i.e. unrelated coincidence).

In alternatives 1-3) above those patients who were observed to have sustained burns may in fact have sustained minor cellular tissue damage caused by the forcing apart of the particles of the pigment in opposing directions due to their differing magnetic properties setting the stage for an accelerated Redox reaction.

The cellular tissue damage could be likened to the effects of slight frostbite (congelation) with the less severe cases of tissue damage resulting in transient reddening of the skin and the more severe cases resembling a burn perhaps with minor extravasation (oozing) of intracellular fluid contents caused by the creation of ROS.

In the (hypothetical) illustration in Figure 3. below the particles within the pigment compound with differing magnetic properties, as depicted in black and grey in the illustration, are forced into diametrically opposite directions under the influence of the MRI magnetic field resulting release of nano particles from their agglomerates, particle spin, surface heating of the particle and possibly a Redox reaction or minor rupture of the fibrin encapsulation/matrix that was previously surrounding and fixating the pigment within the skin.

Hypothetical Ruptured Matrix


The precise mechanism that has caused the reported incidences of skin trauma during MRI is unknown however the authors believe that;

 RF-induced electrical currents

... are better models for describing the cause of; skin tingling/heating/burning/cellular rupture as opposed to simple ferromagnetic attraction.

There are a sufficient number of anecdotal case reports to indicate that there may be a very slight risk of adverse reactions for patients undergoing MRI if they have pre-existing tattoos however the most significant reactions appear to relate to body art tattoos and in particular larger tattoos or those that have circular or loop patterns and it has been suggested by other authors that those circular tattoos may enable a magnetic feedback mechanism to establish.

The reported incidence of adverse reactions during MRI in patients that have permanent makeup is quite low (1.5%) and in most of those cases the reactions were limited to minor, transient tingling or burning sensations. The cause of burning sensations during MRI is yet to be established however there is some evidence to suggest that in at least some of those cases the pigments contained compounds with differing magnetic properties which lends support our hypothesis that diametric particle agitation (DPA) may be the cause it is also conceivable that the minor symptoms experienced in a small number of cases may be purely coincidental as suggested by the research conducted at The Tattoo Clinic, Bispebjerg Hospital Copenghagen Denmark2.
Alsing et al. published similar findings in Skin Research and Technology18 stating that "High concentration of iron was not associated with any increase of temperature or any physical draw or move of ink" and concluding that their study could not confirm any clinically relevant temperature increase of tattoo pigments after MRI, however in vivo experiments may provide a more conclusive indication of the effects of MRI when tattoo pigment is fixated within the skin.

In contrast Creixell et al. and Polo-Corrales et al. demonstrated that surface heating of a nano particle can be induced without affecting the temperature of a surrounding solution, with as much as a 10 degree Celsius differential. 6,7

In a very small number of cases stronger reactions have occurred that resulted in injury to the patient with cosmetic tattoos, it is possible that traces of heavy metal compounds within the pigments may have played a part in those stronger reactions, possibly caused by DPA
Redox or other unknown causes. At this stage the cause of tingling/burning sensations and skin effects in these small number of cases within the medical literature seems inconclusive and may require further investigation by the scientific experts to provide a definitive answer on this issue.


We would recommend that cosmetic tattooist always ensure that they source their pigments from reputable manufacturers who produce high quality pigments and provide detailed information about ingredient lists. Pigments containing compounds of arsenic, lead, barium, mercury and the like should not be used for cosmetic tattooing not only because of the potential MRI risks but also because of the potential general health effects that may result from tattooing those materials into the skin.

Because of the delicate facial structures that are involved with cosmetic tattooing, we would advise against tattooing clients who are scheduled for an MRI at the time of their tattoo appointment until after the MRI has been conducted and clients who undergo MRI at some future time should inform their doctor and their MRI technician that they have cosmetic tattoos.

It would of course be prudent practice for MRI technicians to ask all patients if they have tattoos prior to commencing a scan and of course cease the MRI if the patient experiences significant adverse effects such as burning sensations in the region of skin near the tattoo.

Specific recommendations for MRI operators relating to patients with Cosmetic Tattooing can be read on the site MRI Safety on this link.



This update bulletin was initially produced by as part of our CT-AIVEP Graduate Update Program.

Date of most recent revision: 19/12/2017
Original publication date: 31/10/2010

Copyright © 2010 & the article author All Rights Reserved. No copying, transmission or reproduction of site content is permitted without our prior written consent.

The content of this article should be regarded as general information & is provided solely for the purpose of discussion & is not intended to replace cosmetic tattoo training or medical advice in any instance, always check with a cosmetic tattoo master trainer and or a qualified medical practitioner before acting on any information regarding cosmetic tattooing or in relation to any medical condition or medical circumstance.

Printing Restriction: This article is print disabled, please read our Intellectual Property & Copyright Policies if you would like to request a copy or permission to use the article content for any purpose.

No Plagiarising

Main Menu