Tattoo ink

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Bottles of tattoo ink

Tattoo inks consist of pigments combined with a carrier, used in the process of tattooing to create a tattoo in the skin. These inks are also used for permanent makeup, a form of tattoo.


Tattoo inks are available in a range of colors that can be thinned or mixed together to produce other colors and shades. Most professional tattoo artists purchase inks pre-made (known as predispersed inks), while some tattooers mix their own using a dry pigment and a carrier.[1]

In the United States, tattoo ink manufacturers are not required to reveal their ingredients, or to prove that a voluntarily-published ingredients list is accurate.[2] Their recipes may be proprietary. Tattoo inks from different manufacturers vary widely in formulation, quality, and safety.[3]

Pigment bases[edit]

Pigments can be either small bits of solids or discrete molecules, such as titanium dioxide or iron oxide.[2]

Professional inks may be made from iron oxides (rust), metal salts, or plastics.[4] Homemade or traditional tattoo inks may be made from pen ink, soot, dirt, ash, blood, or other ingredients.[5] The United States Food and Drug Administration has said that many ink pigments used in tattoos are "industrial strength colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint".[5][6]

Metal salts used for tattoo inks include those based on nickel (black), zinc (yellow, white), chromium (green), aluminium (green, violet), titanium (white), copper (blue, green), and iron (brown, red, black) as well as the toxic heavy metals cobalt (blue), mercury (red), lead (yellow, green, white), cadmium (red, orange, yellow), and barium (white). Organic chemicals used include azo-chemicals (orange, brown, yellow, green, violet) and naptha-derived chemicals (red). Carbon is also used for black.[7] Other elements used as pigments include antimony, arsenic, beryllium, calcium, lithium, selenium, and sulphur.[8]

Tattoo ink manufacturers often blend metal pigments and/or use lightening agents (such as lead or titanium) to reduce production costs.[9] Tattoo inks contaminated with metal allergens have been known to cause severe allergenic reactions, sometimes years later, when the original ink is not available for testing.[10]

Blacklight ink[edit]

Blacklight tattoo ink does not glow in the dark, but reacts to non-visible UV light, producing a visible glow by fluorescence. A typical blacklight ink formula includes microspheres of polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) containing fluorescent dye.[11] This ink may cause irritation and may be carcinogenic, and tattoo artists are divided on whether they consider it safe to use.[12][13]

Glow in the dark ink[edit]

Glow-in-the-dark tattoo ink absorbs and retains light, and then glows in darkened conditions by process of phosphorescence. The phosphorus in this type of ink may cause skin rashes and may be carcinogenic,[12][14] and many tattoo artists consider this ink unsafe to use.[13]


A carrier acts as a solvent for the pigment, to "carry" the pigment from the point of needle insertion (typically using a tattoo machine) to the surrounding epidermis and sometimes dermis. Carriers keep the ink evenly mixed and free from pathogens, and aid application.

Solvents are often ethyl alcohol or distilled water; methanol, propylene glycol, and glycerin are also used,[15] along with denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.[16][17] When an alcohol is used as part of the carrier base in tattoo ink or to disinfect the skin before application of the tattoo, it increases the skin's permeability, helping to transport more pigment into the skin.[15]


Preservatives such as benzoic acid may be added to tattoo ink to prevent contamination.[18] Some inks contain formaldehyde as a preservative, which is a carcinogen[3] and may cause dermatitis in the skin.[1] Other inks may use benzo­isothiazolinone, which is a skin irritant.[3]

Ink manufacturers may add witch hazel to help the skin heal after the tattooing process.[2]

Vegan inks[edit]

Some tattoo ink manufacturers produce vegan-friendly inks that do not contain any animal by-products, such as bone char, glycerin, gelatin, and shellac.[19]


Ink, hafted needle, and mallet used in traditional Filipino tattoos (batok)

Carbon-based tattoo pigments were used throughout the ancient world,[20] and carbon continues to be a principal ingredient in modern tattoo ink.[21]

One of the oldest known examples of human tattooing is the 5,300-year-old ice mummy known as Ötzi, discovered in 1991 near the border between Austria and Italy.[22] Researchers examined skin samples from several of Ötzi's tattoos and determined that his tattoos were created using carbon-based pigments derived from soot and ash.[23] Microscopic quartz crystals identified among the carbon particles may have originated from stones around the fireplace where the carbon was collected.[23]

Fred Harris working with tattoo ink in 1937, Sydney, Australia

In the early 1900s, tattoo artist Amund Dietzel used ink made with carbon black, "China red" (vermilion), "Casali's green" (viridian), Prussian blue, and a yellow pigment that may have been arylide yellow.[24]


In the United States, tattoo inks are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as cosmetics and color additives.[25] The FDA does not generally exercise this regulatory authority because of other higher priorities and insufficient evidence of specific pigments causing safety problems in tattoo ink.[25] It has not approved any pigments for cosmetic tattooing.[26] The FDA does investigate tattoo inks if they receive reports of safety concerns, such as bacteria in inks, and they publish safety alerts.[27] Manufacturers of tattoo inks aren't required to disclose ingredients.[2]

In California, Proposition 65 requires that Californians be warned before exposure to certain harmful chemicals.[8] In 2004, an environmental nonprofit sued several tattoo ink manufacturers for violating this law.[8] A judge ordered two of the companies to put warning labels on their products and in their catalogs to tell California customers that tattoo inks contain heavy metals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.[28]

Europe requires tattoo ink makers to indicate any hazardous ingredients on product labels.[19] In 2021, the European Union established rules requiring certain green and blue pigments, Blue 15:3 and Green 7, to be phased out of tattoo inks.[27]

Health effects[edit]

Components of tattoo ink may cause allergic reactions in skin, including red, green, yellow and blue pigments.[29] Colored inks, such as red, seem to cause allergic reactions more often than black ink.[7]

Several commonly-used ingredients are potential carcinogens — for example, most black inks contain carbon black, which is based on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.[7] Many of the particles used in tattoo inks are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, making it easier for them to penetrate cells and possibly cause cancer.[2] However, a review article in 2016 said "The number of skin cancers arising in tattoos is seemingly low, and this association has to be considered thus far as coincidental."[30]

After application of a tattoo, a portion of the ink is carried away by blood vessels and the lymphatic system, and some of it may be excreted or stored elsewhere in the body.[7] Tattoo pigments may migrate into lymph nodes, including toxic elements in ink such as chromium.[31] Long-term studies would be needed to determine if pigments in human lymph nodes have harmful effects.[32]

In medical imaging, such as mammography,[33] pigments in lymph nodes may be accidentally interpreted as abnormal results, giving false positive results for cancer.[34][35] Treatment of cancer may include using blue dye in the body to detect a sentinel lymph node, so existing tattoo pigments in lymph nodes may cause difficulty in identifying and treating sentinel nodes.[36][37]


Tattoo ink is generally permanent. Tattoo removal is difficult and painful, and the degree of success depends on the materials used.

Removable ink[edit]

R. Rox Anderson developed a tattoo ink to simplify tattoo removal, designed to be easier to remove by laser treatments than traditional inks, called "InfinitInk".[38][39] The ink is encapsulated in tiny plastic beads; the encapsulated ink is stable in normal light, but under the kind of laser light used in laser tattoo removal, the ink is released from the beads and is absorbed.[40] Anderson co-founded a company called Freedom-2 to bring the ink to market[41] with assistance from Edith Mathiowitz, Joshua Reineke and A. Peter Morello of Brown University.[42]

Semi-permanent ink[edit]

A company in New York City, Ephemeral, advertises its proprietary tattoo ink as fading 9–15 months after application.[43]

Temporary tattoo pigments[edit]

Mehndi body art involves applying henna dye externally to create a temporary tattoo on the surface of the skin, typically producing a brown color that fades in a few weeks. Health Canada has advised against the use of "black henna" pigment that contains para-phenylenediamine (PPD), an ingredient in hair dyes.[44] Allergic reactions to PPD include rashes, contact dermatitis, itching, blisters, open sores, scarring and other potentially harmful effects.[45]

Jagua tattoos are a form of temporary tattoo made with a fruit-based dye, creating a blue-black color that fades in a couple weeks.[46] Jagua is sometimes promoted as a healthier alternative to black henna.[47][48]


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