Mind & Body

Do You Know What Chemicals Are In Your Tattoo?

Human beings have been tattooing themselves for thousands of years. Prehistoric cavemen and Egyptian royals brandished tattoos made from soot, charcoal, and other natural pigments, but modern tattoo artists often have little knowledge of what their inks are really made of.

Tattoo Ink Is a Trade Secret

Although tattoo artists must be certified in order to legally work, tattoo inks and pigments are not regulated by any government authority. Unless you are a professional tattoo artist and you mix your own inks from dry pigments, there is a good chance you'll never find out exactly what goes into tattoo ink.

This is because tattoo ink manufacturers go to great lengths to protect their proprietary formulas. If everyone knew exactly how a tattoo ink manufacturer made its ink, an unscrupulous upstart could leverage an unfair economic advantage by stealing the formula and put the original manufacturer out of business. As a result, tattoo artists and enthusiasts usually have no idea exactly what chemicals are in their tattoos. Some pigments are sourced from natural ingredients and low-quality pigments can  be sourced from the textile, plastic, or automotive industry.

A 2016 JRC report analyzed a wide variety of tattoo pigments for the chemicals within them and listed the ones of most concern. The most dangerous are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a chemical group found in mostly black inks that contains carcinogens and can migrate from the skin to the lymph nodes. There are also azo pigments, which make up about 60% of the color ingredients in tattoo inks. Though azo pigments are safe when they first enter the skin, they can degrade over time into potentially cancer-causing compounds. A Swiss survey of 229 tattoo inks also found problematic preservatives. A quarter of the inks contained the skin irritant benzo-isothiazolinone, and 7% contained formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Tattoo inks can also contain harmful metals such as nickel, chromium, and cobalt.

So Are All Tattoos Unsafe?

Not necessarily. Modern high-quality pigments are typically made from various metal salts. These metals give the resulting ink its color. Different metals pose different risks, which means certain colors are inherently riskier than others. Red ink, in particular, is known to cause sensitivity reactions and other health problems more often than black or yellow, both of which can be easily manufactured from safe, natural sources. Blues and greens made from high-quality copper salts tend to be safe as well, but watch out for cobalt-based blues. White pigments made from titanium oxide are some of the least reactive pigments in the industry, but there are thousands of ways to make pigments for tattoo ink.

If you want to be safe about getting a tattoo, stick to reputable artists and don't be afraid to save up and pay a premium price. Cheap inks are cheap for a reason, and unscrupulous tattoo artists won't be able to offer evidence supporting their ink choices. You should ask your tattoo artist to provide as much information as possible about where the inks came from and what they're made of, and be specific about the colors involved.

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Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell November 19, 2016

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