A detailed look into tattoo ink ingredients. Read on – you will be surprised.

Worldwide, tattoos have become a popular way for people to express themselves through body art.

According to tattoo statistics, 1 in 7 Australians have a tattoo, 1 in 3 New Zealanders, 1 in 4 in the United States and 1 in 10 in Europe and the prevalence is still growing.

With this large growth, I wonder how many people have ever really wondered what ingredients make up tattoo ink?

US Lawsuit against tattoo ink sellers

The safety of tattoo inks or pigments has been the subject of some attention, due to a lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI) against tattoo ink sellers in California in the United States because heavy metals are used to give tattoo pigments their permanent colour. But it is also known that heavy metals have been linked to significant health issues for humans.

As a result of this lawsuit, the companies must place a warning for their California customers on their tattoo ink labels, catalogues and Internet sites that reads “inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others” and that the ingredients have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

In November 2011, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approved a new standard, the Tattoo and Permanent Make-Up Substances Group Standard to  better manage the risks associated with the chemical compositions. While the guidelines are not mandatory, they represent best practice guidance.

As recent as 2014, laboratory analyses  performed in Iran, Sweden, Germany and New Zealand have concluded that most samples tested contained metals which are greater in magnitude than the recommended guidelines and therefore pose a public health risk.

The specific ingredients that are used in the pigments differ by colour and by brand, but may include not only lead and arsenic, but also antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt, and nickel — metals that have also been linked to health issues in people.

How much heavy metal exposure am I getting with a tattoo?

The amount of these metals in a tattoo may be substantial.

For example, AESI states that the ink used for a passport sized tattoo (roughly 7.5cm x 12.5cm) contains 1.23 micrograms of lead, which is more than double the amount permitted per day under many health regulation laws in the US.

The 2013 New Zealand study tested commercial tattoo inks involving over 169 samples and 18 different brands. Substances known to cause allergies, cancer, mutations and damage to reproductive ability have been found in most colours.

Other conclusions outlined in the report were that inks using non-metal colourants may include traces of antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel. Titanium Dioxide is often used for lightening the ink shade and dilutents used to suspend pigments may also be complex mixtures.

Adverse reactions to these various components can happen, notably acute inflammatory reaction and granulomas. A lot of these compounds are predominately not produced for tattooing but are also ingredients of paints and varnishes and therefore have no specific declarations on the ingredients. The regulations that exist apply to paints and varnishes and not to cosmetics, foods and drugs.

Reactions to tattoo inks are not uncommon

It is therefore no surprise that a recent study has shown that 10 % of New Yorkers have developed an allergic response to a tattoo.

reaction to red tattoo ink ingredients

Of 300 participants, 10.3% reported experiencing an adverse tattoo reaction, 4.3% reported acute reactions, and 6.0% suffered from a chronic reaction involving a specific colour lasting for more than 4 months.

Forty-four per cent of colour-specific reactions were to red ink. Twenty-five per cent of chronic reactions were to black ink. Participants in the study who experienced chronic, colour-specific reactions had more tattoo colours than those without reactions.

Unfortunately, we do live in a toxic environment so minimising toxic exposure is always a good idea. Adverse effects from heavy metals have been documented for exposures that occur over long time periods: large doses of mercury can be acquired from fish consumption as well as aluminium from aluminium foil. Although there are no studies explicitly investigating the long-term health effects of the metals in tattoo inks, given the propensity for colour-specific reactions, following the recommendations listed below on sourcing ink colours that use specific ingredients would be wise.

Interestingly, medical MRI’s (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) can cause tattoos to sting or create a burning sensation, as the heavy metals in the ink are affected by the test’s magnetism (cobalt blue for example is magnetic). The skin may remain red but this is only short time and MRI’s are not contraindicated if you have a tattoo.

Certain tattoo colours may present greater health risks than others

skin reactions to tattoo ink ingredients

Generally, standard colours pose less of an issue than newer tattoo inks using fluorescent or metallic colours.

Green tattoo ink ingredients

Green pigments produced from copper salts (Copper Pthalocyanine) are thought to be safe, as they are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in contact lenses, surgical implants, and infant furniture paint. But green has been known to be a common cause of eczema-like skin reactions both within the tattoo, as well as similar eczema type reactions on the body to the extent that complete removal of the tattoo is required.

The reaction may actually arise years after the tattoo has been placed. Chromic oxide has a variety of names including Chrome green, Casalic green and Guignet’s green. Other shades of green such as emerald green are formed from another type of chromium salt called viridian or copper salt derivatives.

Blue tattoo ink ingredients

Blue dyes are derived from a variety of Cobalt salts and are well known for sometimes creating deep granulomas (granulomas refer to the type of cells that react, a foreign body reaction by the immune system causing raised red bumps) as well as causing localized hypersensitivity reaction (uveitis in the eyes, the pigmented portion of the eye). Cobalt blue and cobaltous aluminate are names that you should be aware of. Try to ensure the blue pigments are ones derived from copper salts.

Black tattoo ink ingredients

Black pigments are most commonly made from carbon, and sensitivity to carbon is very rare. Other sources of black tattoo colour may be found in black ink and logwood. Neither of these are metal derivatives, however, it might be best to avoid black waterproof ink which contains phenol solution in which charcoal particles are suspended, possibly creating a reaction.

White tattoo ink ingredients

White tattoos are achieved usually from titanium or zinc oxide or from the use of lead carbon. These may have the potential to contain metallic derivatives and white is the hardest tattoo colour to remove or fade.

Purple tattoo ink ingredients

Purple and violet is derived from the metal Manganese and sometimes aluminium which may cause some tattoo skin reactions.

Brown tattoo ink ingredients

Brown dye may be created by the use of Venetian Red which is derived from Ferric Oxide or from Cadmium salts, associated with swelling upon exposure to sunlight (phototoxicity).

Yellow tattoo ink ingredients

Yellow dyes are often Cadmium sulphide, a common reaction ingredient. It can cause local or generalized dermatitis reactions and has been known to create phototoxic reactions when exposed to light. Phototoxic reactions can last for a long time unfortunately.

Red tattoo ink ingredients – the worst colour of all.

As cited in the US research cited above, of all the colours, red pigments, especially those that contain cadmium, iron oxides or mercury (cinnabar), are generally the most worrisome. Mercury is the base metal in red tattoo dye, and may be known by the names mercury sulphide, cinnabar and vermillion. Reactions can actually happen many years later and has caused allergic reactions and scarring in people and has sensitized people to mercury from other sources, such as fish, vaccines or dental fillings.

If you absolutely must have red, ask around and see if you can find a tattoo artist that uses carmine (from dried insect carcasses) sandalwood, brazilwood or scarlet lake, which are all non-metallic organic pigments.

Do your research on tattoo ink ingredients

In light of these and other concerns, it makes sense to think twice about getting a tattoo. At a minimum, you should find out the ingredients of any tattoo pigments that will make up your new tattoo.

This information may be hard to find, since the ingredients of tattoo pigments are considered to be proprietary and thus are usually not listed or otherwise revealed. Some tattoo artists, however, do mix their own tattoo pigments, in which case they should be able to tell you the ingredients.

If you have reacted to tattoo ink previously or if you are easily irritated by lotions and potions, then you are the person that will need to dig deep into what is in the ink.

I would suggest going to only those artists that can give you this information.

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