Tattoos have transformed from cultural taboos into mainstream phenomena across the world. In the US and Europe, the youth can be seen sporting colorful body art more than their parents, an indicator of how socially acceptable skin art has become.
Statistics show that about 12% of Europeans have at least one tattoo. The figures are higher among Americans as more than 20% have some skin graphics to flaunt. Another study reveals that approximately 40% of American adults in the 26-40 age bracket have had some needlework done. Tattooing is so common nowadays that the researchers studying tattoos, even if they aren't inked, know others who are!
Multiple studies have shown that most tattoo enthusiasts don’t know what is contained in tattoo inks. However, understanding what tattoo inks comprise is one way you can minimize the risks to health and safety.
Tattoo inks consist of these two primary components:
Pigments give tattoos their brilliant colors. Modern tattoo inks are a mixture of traditional mineral pigments and modern industrial organic pigments. Also called dyes or colorants, pigments can be obtained from minerals, plants or even plastics. They can exist as small solid particles or as discrete molecules such as titanium dioxide or iron oxide.
The carrier dissolves the dyes and helps spread them from the needle tip to the surrounding skin. Carriers ensure ink mixes evenly, is free of germs or pathogens, prevent clumping, and support consistent application.
Today, tattoo ink manufacturers use safe carriers such as propylene glycol, glycerin, ethyl alcohol, and distilled water. Some manufacturers may also add a small amount of grain or isopropyl alcohol along with a touch of witch hazel to help the skin heal.
How Tattoo Ink Permeates the Skin
The tattoo artist chooses the desired color of tattoo ink and loads it into a machine that has needles attached to it.
In the tattooing process, the machine moves the needles up and down very quickly to make small punctures past the epidermis which helps push tiny particles of ink into the middle layers of the skin (the dermis).
Color pigments (tiny color particles) from the tattoo ink solution stay behind once the carrier solution is removed by the body. The skin around the tattoo site receives more blood flow during the healing process, which helps remove any remaining carrier agent, water, or pigments. Aiding in the healing process are special cells in your body called macrophages which surround remaining particles didn't disperse. This helps keep the pigment particles in place.
As ink particles are fixed in the mid layers of your skin, their chemical composition could result in adverse health reactions where the components were untested and unapproved.
Should all go smoothly, and your skin completely heals, the tattoo graphics will be etched on your skin with its design and colors intact.
Telltale Signs of Safe Tattoo Inks
The characteristics of safe tattoo ink can vary, but here are some key aspects to consider:
Research shows that tattoo inks may contain levels of heavy metals undetectable by MRI or metal detectors. The more tattoos you have, the higher the concentration of heavy metals in your bloodstream when using non-recommended types of ink. It is important that your ink is free from harmful substances.
Raw ingredients used may contain impurities. Certain dyes in the ink, such as azo-containing dyes are generally safe but can become carcinogenic compounds when exposed to bacteria or ultraviolet light.
Scientists have also raised concerns about what happens to these inks over time. It's not clear if sunlight or natural processes in the body break down the chemicals in the ink, potentially creating by-products with side effects of their own.
With all of this in mind, you should choose a trusted ink that puts safety first.
Ink must be manufactured and packaged in a clean, germ-free environment to avoid any contamination or infection.
Although tattoo inks are generally safe, it is important to realize that different countries may have different standards for how they are manufactured. Even in the US, there are no specific FDA regulations for tattoo inks. However, reputable manufacturers often have their own strict rules that they must follow when making ink.
Before using tattoo ink, you should check that it has been sterilized. Leading brands employ a unique process, known as gamma radiation, which helps kill harmful bacteria. Also, make sure that the ink does not contain any toxic ingredients that can cause health problems.
By keeping these things in mind, you can be sure that you are choosing a safe tattoo ink for your body.
A good quality ink should retain its color and vibrancy over time. You do not want your tattoo to fade or change color as this can affect the overall appearance of your tattoo.
Ink should be formulated to flow easily on the skin and stay in place once injected. This will ensure that the tattoo remains clear and defined.
You want your tattoo to be durable and last for many years without fading.It should also retain its color and not fade once the tattoo has fully healed.
Because it's difficult to know how ink works without testing it, you can get information from other people. Check out online reviews of different ink products to see what other people's experiences have been. It can also be helpful to speak to reputable tattoo artists for direct feedback and recommendations.
Tattoo ink has even been found in lymph nodes and other tissues, suggesting that insoluble pigment particles through the bloodstream may move more extensively through our bodies than previously thought.
Red pigments in particular have been associated with higher rates of allergic reactions. However, its possible that the cause may not be the pigments themselves.
A survey conducted in New York's Central Park found that 6% of tattooed individuals reported chronic reactions, such as itchiness, swelling, or raised skin. It's important to note that while an allergic reaction may not be a big deal for a small tattoo, it can become a concern for larger tattoos, like a sleeve.
Unfortunately, it's challenging to investigate whether tattoo pigments in the body pose long-term risks, such as an increased likelihood of developing diseases like cancer.
Tattoo ink manufacturers typically formulate their products using ingredients originally intended for textiles, paints, and other industries. This poses a challenge for toxicologists and health experts, as existing health data doesn't account for these ingredients residing in the skin for extended periods. As a result, questions remain about what factors contribute to adverse health events, such as infections, allergic reactions, and other skin problems associated with tattoos.
Ideally, safe tattoo inks should be free from common allergens like nickel, cobalt, or any ingredients that can potentially trigger allergic reactions in susceptible individuals.
Studies have shown that some of the ink gets into immune cells called macrophages, which gobble up foreign substances or microbes. When these cells die, they shed the pigment, which is then taken up by new cells.
Small amounts of blood are common during tattooing, indicating that blood vessels may be damaged and that ink can enter the bloodstream. There have also been reports of severe reactions caused by the release of allergens into the bloodstream when the ink particles spread on the skin. Unfortunately, it is difficult to study whether having tattoo pigments on the body poses any long-term risks.
Ideally, safe tattoo inks should be free of common allergens such as nickel, cobalt, or other ingredients that can cause allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. Always check online to see what brands use safe pigments.
At Binghamton University, scientists conducted a study on almost 100 different tattoo colors. They found that labels on ink bottles are often wrong and that some inks contain tiny particles that can damage human cells. Some colors were mislabeled and some important fabrics were not mentioned at all.
Knowing what is actually in the inks helps us stay safe and informed. Manufacturers should provide clear and accurate lists of the ingredients they use. This allows tattoo artists and clients to make smart decisions.
You can avoid things that might cause skin allergies or damage by checking online to see what tattoo brands label accurately.
When it comes to tattoo inks, regulations can vary between countries.
Unfortunately, even in the United States, tattoo inks are lightly regulated and manufacturers don't have to disclose ingredients.
In Europe, however, countries require ingredient labeling and restrict harmful chemicals. Additionally, some tattoo inks with excessive amounts of harmful substances have been removed from the market following the EU regulations enacted in 2022 to prevent harmful substances in tattoo inks.
To ensure public health and safety, tattoo inks should be produced following good manufacturing practices.
Remember to prioritize your safety by choosing tattoo inks that comply with good manufacturing practices.
Organic or Vegan
Organic inks contain products of animal origin such as beeswax, bone char, shellac from beetles, cod liver oil or glycerin from animal fat. Vegan ink manufacturers choose to replace these animal-based ingredients with vegetable glycerin and Virginian extracts.
In the past, tattoo ink was made from ingredients like heavy metals, rust, carbon, and even ballpoint ink. Nowadays there is a trend towards using vegan or organic pigments in modern inks. Modern inks contain over 200 different additives and colorants. Many pigments are approved for cosmetic use, but some may not be suitable for your body and skin.
Vegan inks are considered less harmful than mineral-based inks that contain heavy metals. They have a lower presence of toxic and chemical substances than traditional inks. The products they produce are also not tested on animals. Therefore, always enquire if the tattoo ink you’re using is vegan-friendly.
For more information on our collector’s tattoo ink sets, please take a look at our piece on Xtreme Inks: Artist Collections.