What Kind of Ink is Used for Tattoos?

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In a world that seems to be brimming with different examples of body art, it seems that not many people truly understand the chemicals and ingredients that go into their tattoos. Yet, in spite of this lack of knowledge, it is estimated that 1 in 5 adults now have tattoos – a percentage that has increased significantly from previous years.

Of course, just because the average consumer may not engage in a lot of research regarding the ingredients present in various tattoo inks, doesn’t mean that other research-minded individuals and scientists haven’t taken the initiative and embarked on a journey to find out more about exactly what tattoo ink contains and what it might be doing to our bodies.

Considering the Basic Components of Tattoo Ink

On a basic level, the information surrounding tattoo design indicates that ink is made up of two components: the pigment and the carrier. The purpose of the carrier is to work as a form of suspension product that keeps the pigment in the ink free from pathogens and evenly mixed. Research into “Intenze inks” using a material safety data sheet, can give us a closer insight into the exact ingredients in one specific brand’s use of ink. In this case, most of the carriers consist of a combination of water, acrylic resin, glycerine, witch hazel, and isopropyl alcohol. You can see a more detailed ingredient rundown below:

  • True Black: Pigment Black, Acrylic resin, Glycerine, Water, Witch Hazel, and Isopropyl Alcohol
  • High Wight: Titanium Dioxide, Water, Acrylic Resin
  • Hard Orange: Acrylic Resin, Pigment red 210, Pigment orange 13, Glycerine, Water, Witch Hazel, Isopropyl alcohol
  • Red Cherry: Pigment Red 210, Acrylic resin, pigment blue 15, Glycerine, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel
  • Bowery Yellow: Pigment yellow 65, acrylic resin, titanium oxide
  • Dark Green: Pigment green, Acrylic resin, Glycerine, Water, Witch Hazel, Isopropyl Alcohol
  • Baby Blue: Titanium Dioxide, Acrylic resin, Isopropyl Alcohol, Pigment blue 15, Glycerine, Witch hazel, water
  • Deep Indigo: Pigment violet 1, Acrylic Resin, Glycerine, Titanium oxide, Isopropyl Alcohol, water, Witch hazel
tattoo inks and needle

The “colour” part of the tattoo, is the pigment. Pigments in tattoo ink can come from a range of different sources, including modern industrial organic pigments, mineral pigments, vegetable-based and plastic-based pigments. Most of these pigments contain a combination of metallic and organic elements in their composition. Manufactures of pigments are not required to reveal information about any of the ingredients that they use for pigment bases, nor are they required to conduct trials for safety. Because of this, many recipes are proprietary, and can use iron oxides (rust), plastics, metal salts, soot, and more. On top of that, many ink manufacturers blend heavy metals in their pigments with lightening agents to reduce their production costs.

The Dangers of Tattoo Pigments

Perhaps the biggest issue with tattoo pigments, is that they don’t remain within the dermis (or the upper part of the skin). Instead, the various ingredients used to make those colours gradually begin to transfer into regional lymph nodes throughout vessels, leading to serious problems. In fact, there’s some evidence that ink pigments located within lymph nodes might create problems and affect medical interpretations during surgical and diagnostic procedures. For example, this study shows that tattoo pigment is capable of mimicking positive results for melanoma.

The dangers of tattoo pigments aren’t commonly known, yet there’s plenty of research out there that shows how dangerous these ingredients can be when allowed to seep into the skin over time. On top of that, there’s also a range of evidence proving that tattoo pigment from decorative body art can migrate into the regional lymph nodes in the first place.

Mutations and Other Threats

Besides the obvious issue of tattoo ink leading to mimicked results in surgical and diagnostic procedures, there’s also been some research that indicates tattoos may be responsible for causing mutations and cancers. In fact, these studies suggest that some colours are generally more dangerous than others in this instance.

According to the European Chemicals agency, many reports suggest there’s significant concerns for public health that come from the composition of various inks used for tattooing. Some of the most severe concerns are the allergies that can be caused by substances in the inks, but there’s also issues of carcinogenic, reproductively toxic, and mutagenic effects too. This is simply because inks are not yet regulated in the EU, meaning restrictions are limited. As a result, red ink has been linked to dermatitis, soreness, and swelling, due to a contents of mercury sulphide, and red, blue, green, and purple inks are more likely to lead to granulomas.

person getting red tattoo inked

Red tattoo ink has been linked to dermatitis, soreness, and swelling.

The Presence of Heavy Metals in Pigments

As mentioned above, heavy metals are regularly found within tattoo pigments, in part as an effort to reduce expenses. New Zealands ministry of health recently surveyed tattoo inks during 2013 to discover whether the mainstream inks that are used today comply with the maximum levels of heavy metals that have been recommended by the EPA (Environmental Protection Authority), in their guidelines for permanent make-up and tattoo substances. In total, 169 inks were tested, covering 118 colour-variants from 18 different brands.

The study allowed for the tattoo inks to be analysed for the presence of:

  • Cobalt
  • Chromium
  • Cadmium
  • Barium
  • Arsenic
  • Copper Soluble
  • Nickel
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Antimony
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Tin

These substances were tested for because they are known to present a significant danger to public health, and testing for such products is readily available. However, the survey was unable to test for the presence of other heavy metal compounds added to the inks. The study found that the available colour samples were “generally compliant” in regards to levels of selenium, chromium, and cobalt. However, for all other metals, compliance was largely varied.

Are Tattoo Inks Safe?

It’s difficult to answer the question of whether tattoo inks are safe, but the evidence available at the moment doesn’t look good – particularly when you address heavy metal content, the threat of mutations and allergens, and even the dangerous affects that inks can have when they migrate into regional lymph nodes.

However, despite the lack of regulation and transparency between consumers and ink providers, people are still racing to get tattoos. Perhaps greater knowledge, more public awareness, strict regulations and testing of inks would improve the safety of the tattoo industry – but only time will tell.

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Who Owns Your Tattoos? Tattoos and UK Copyright Law

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