Tattoo Chemistry: What is Tattoo Ink Made From?

For thousands of years, humans around the world have undertaken different types of body decorations, or tattoos, for religious and other reasons. The oldest example and evidence of tattooing so far is the 5,300-year-old mummy known as Ötzi. The mummy was discovered in the Alps and has 61 individually identifiable tattoos, all located near its joints. Due to the location of the tattoo, researchers believe the tattoos were used as a kind of treatment for joint pain or arthritis.

Nowadays, hundreds of millions of people get tattoos for many reasons; they follow trends, look for a way to express themselves or try to stand out in the crowd. Whatever the reason, tattooing has never been so popular among young people and even older adults.

However, it seems that people thousands of years ago and now also don’t really look into the chemistry and ingredients used to make tattoo ink. With many tattoo and ink regulations springing up in European countries, the issue of ink ingredients is also starting to grow in the United States.

So, to make this problem more understandable for ordinary people, we decided to tackle the subject of tattoo ingredients and explain the chemistry of tattoos and inks. Hopefully this paints a clear picture of how dangerous and inadequately regulated tattoo inks are.

Tattoo Ink Ingredients – Explained

What’s in tattoo ink?

To put it as simply as possible, tattoo inks of any kind consist of a tattoo colorant or pigment and a carrier.

Tattoo dyes or pigments, contrary to popular opinion, are not colorants; these are colored compounds used to give the tattoo the necessary color while remaining visible in the skin. Dyes require direct interaction with the skin to develop the color, while ink dyes do not require such a reaction and ensure that the color stays in the dermis of the skin for years.

But, what are these tattoo dyes or pigments made of?

For years, dyes were primarily made from carbon and iron oxide. These mineral springs were used to make black ink. For other colors, such as red, the ink colorants were made from cinnabar, which is a mercury sulfide compound. For colors like yellow, orange and shades of red, colorants were made from cadmium red and cadmium yellow.

Carbon is the main base of tattoo ink these days, accounting for 80% of all carbon-based inks. However, cinnabar and cadmium compounds are still used to make ink colorants, but in a lower percentage. Since there is no direct information on the ingredients of tattoo ink (and the amount of ingredients used), we cannot say for sure how many tattoo ink colorants are based on. cadmium or cinnabar.

Carriers, on the other hand, are fluid ink components that can be either glycerin, isopropyl alcohol, witch hazel, or distilled water. These components are responsible for transferring the dye or pigment to the “injection site”, which is the dermis of the skin. When the carriers are alcohol-based, they help transport more pigment into the skin, due to the increased permeability of the skin. Carriers keep pigments evenly blended and pathogen free.

What are the ingredients of Exact Ink?

Before we get into the list of ink ingredients, we must point out the following;

  • In the United States, tattoo inks are supposed to be under the authority of the FDA, as they are considered cosmetics or color additives. However, this authority is rarely exercised. Moreover, tattoo ink manufacturers are not required to provide the exact list of ingredients in their products, which makes the problem of questionable ingredients even deeper and more harmful.

Now let’s move on to the list of tattoo ink ingredients. So far, it has been discovered that the ingredient list varies depending on the type of dye or the color of the ink. For instance;

  • Black ink – usually carbon-based, contains iron oxide and possibly logwood. It is believed that black ink may also contain bone back, powder jet, wustite and carbon soot. As for carriers, there is usually isopropyl alcohol, witch hazel, and water.
  • red ink – based on cadmium red, contains cinnabar, iron oxide and naphthol-AS pigment. Due to highly toxic ingredients, red ink is on the EPA’s list of common causes of allergic reactions, infections, and cancers. When it comes to media, red ink usually contains glycerine, water, isopropyl alcohol, and acrylic resin.
  • Orange ink – cadmium-based, contains cadmium seleno-sulphate and diazodiarylide. Orange ink contains the same carriers as other cadmium-based inks, such as red.
  • brown ink – contains ingredients like clay earth (iron oxide mixed with clay), as well as raw ocher to achieve the yellowish-reddish-brownish color. When it comes to media, the ingredients are similar to black ink media.

Other tattoo inks like blue, sky blue, indigo, dark green, and white vary in ingredients. They usually contain specific pigments, alongside standard carriers like isopropyl alcohol, witch hazel and water.

Are the ink ingredients toxic?

Now, mineral-based ingredients are generally not considered toxic. However, some pigments can be toxic and harmful to long-term health. In some cases, specific pigments and toxic carriers can cause a direct allergic reaction, skin/tattoo inflammation and infection. Some tattoo inks also contain heavy metals and potentially harmful ingredients.

For example, red ink is considered to contain some of the most toxic ingredients. A standard red ink contains aluminum, cinnabar, chromium, cadmium, hoof gelatin, cobalt, naphthol-AS pigment, and even denatured alcohols and formaldehyde (which have been shown to be exceptionally toxic).

Among other ingredients, red ink (and other inks) may contain toxic components like ethylene glycol (antifreeze), rubbing alcohol, or carriers of animal origin like animal fat glycerin, cod liver oil or beeswax.

We should also mention the increasingly popular phosphorescent tattoo inks, also known as UV inks. These are also considered toxic due to ingredients such as PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate), also known as acrylic glass, or plexiglass. In the case of UV inks, the PMMA ingredient is suspended in UV distilled water.

When it comes to pigment carriers, the standards (like witch hazel, isopropyl alcohol, and water) are replaced by toxic carriers like denatured alcohols, rubbing alcohol, ethylene glycol, and formaldehyde . All of these ingredients are highly toxic and can cause severe skin burns, irritation and skin damage.

Okay, tattoo ink can contain toxic ingredients. But, how exactly are they harmful in the form of a tattoo? Let’s find out in the following paragraphs!

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Tattoo ink and health issues

Due to questionable ingredients and the inability of tattoo artists to really know what the inks they use contain, there are some health issues that we need to be aware of.

  • Ink allergies are probably the most common side effects of ink use. The reason allergies occur are toxic ingredients, heavy metals, and questionable pigment carriers. Ink allergies manifest as skin swelling, redness, rashes, burning, and skin hypersensitivity.
  • Red ink, for example, is notoriously avoided because it is proven to contain carcinogenic ingredients. The ingredients in red ink are even on the EPA’s list of common causes of allergies, infections and cancer.
  • One of the common side effects of tattoos is perpetual itching, especially with cadmium-based inks, such as red, yellow, and orange. Itching is part of the natural tattoo healing process. But, in the case of these inks, due to the toxic ingredients, the itching may persist even beyond the healing process. This is a sign that the body is rejecting ink and will simply never get used to toxic ingredients.
  • A recent case report shows that tattoo pigments can migrate into the lymph nodes. As such, they can show up on medical scans as tumors, which can lead to unnecessary surgeries. For example, a woman had a complete hysterectomy; later, she discovered that the procedure was unnecessary since the lymph nodes contained tattoo pigment, proving there was no tumor, to begin with.

Also Read: Does Tattoo Ink Expire? Everything you need to know

Are there alternatives to ink?

So far, the most common alternative to standard ink is so-called vegan ink. This type of ink is considered more environmentally friendly because it does not use animal-derived or carbon-based ingredients.

For example, animal fat glycerin is replaced by vegetable glycerin or vegetable oil in vegan inks. However, vegan inks can still contain toxic components and heavy metals, so they are not completely safe and risk-free.

On the other hand, people are increasingly choosing permanent tattoos, to avoid either a total tattoo commitment or the dangers of a real tattoo. The most popular choices are either a henna tattoo or permanent options like inkbox tattoos.

However, henna tattoos aren’t completely safe either. For example, black henna is known to contain a toxic chemical known as paraphenylenediamine or PPD. This chemical can cause severe chemical burns and allergic reactions. Other types of henna, made from 100% organic dried henna powder, are generally safe to use.

Final Thoughts

Getting a tattoo can be quite a risky choice. You may experience many side effects and you may not even know if you are allergic to ink until it is too late. So, before a tattoo, be sure to do your homework; research tattoo ink, potential side effects, ingredients that may harm you, etc.

You can even take an allergy test to see which ingredients could potentially trigger a reaction. Next, find a knowledgeable and experienced professional to do your tattoo. You can discuss the tattoo ink problem with your tattoo artist and find a potential and safest solution.

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