Risks of Tattoo Inks

Updated on January 29, 2016
Tattoo inks come in countless shades and can be made out of numerous different chemicals.
Tattoo inks come in countless shades and can be made out of numerous different chemicals.

Most people don't think about what is going into their skin when they get a tattoo, but tattoo inks vary widely and can impact the visual outcome of the tattoo and your health-this is material that is going under your skin after all!

Tattoo ink is inserted into the skin underneath the epidermis into the dermis by a tattoo needle. Over time, some ink is absorbed into the body and the lines tend to diffuse slightly as the ink softens. This is why tattooists often recommend against too much complexity in a small space, as over time the detail will become blurred. This absorption of tattoo ink by your body should be all you need to hear to realize how important picking a safe tattoo ink is. Don't be swayed from getting a tattoo completely--they can be safe and beautiful--but awareness is always a good thing to have, especially in the tattoo industry.

Ink Ingredients

Tattoo inks are usually dry pigments mixed with a solution that is often glycerin based. Some artists mix their own inks, though these days most buy pre-mixed.

Many of the pigments are mineral based, however some are plastic based. Plastic-based inks make for brilliant colors, but have reportedly caused bad reactions in many recipients. Some people report a crunchy, hard feeling when the area is touched as the plastics collect and coagulate under the skin. This crunchiness cannot be corrected with laser removal, which breaks down only the ink pigments so they are carried away by the lymph system--not the plastic carriers.

Other problems with tattoo inks

Some people report their tattoos become temporarily bumpy after exposure to the sun or heat. This is possible because the darker colors are expanding in response to the increased temperatures, but granulomas, or small bumps, can develop permanently if the body is rejecting a foreign substance. The common carrier for the pigments, glycerin, is animal based. Some black inks are made from charred bones of animals. If you are vegan, you may want to research vegetable-based inks, such as Starbright and Stable. If a tattoo shop does not use vegan ink, you can request to bring your own ink and purchase these vegetable-based inks online.

Black light ink tattoos

Another ink available is black light ink. This ink is visible only underneath a black light, in which it glows. Under regular light, it is invisible. Some shops carry it, or you may need to purchase your own and bring it in. Skincandy is a good one, and it's vegan!

Watch this video to see how the ink works.

Black light ink

New, removable ink

Recently, a new ink that is easier to remove was developed and put on the market by doctors. The pigment is attached to a plastic polymer and when hit by a laser, the pigment detaches from the polymer and is absorbed by the lymph system. Instead of several laser treatments, only one is needed to remove a tattoo made with this ink. The plastic polymer, however, is not absorbed by your body and will remain with you permanently. Many tattooists are unhappy about the introduction of this new ink, as part of the meaning of tattoos is their permanence, but it does offer an option for the wary. Not all tattooists will be willing to use it, and, like the other inks, it is not regulated by the FDA. It sounds like the "temporary tattoo" everyone's been searching for, but you'll still have plastic under your skin forever--the thought seems gross to me. Also, tattooists are unsure if the color of this ink is any good--that is, will good tattoos be able to be done with this ink?

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any ink for tattooing; therefore, any tattoo is at your own risk. The manufacturers of tattoo ink are not required to disclose the ingredients, as it is an unregulated industry (just like cosmetics, interestingly enough). Many tattoo artists feel comfortable with their inks from experience, having seen through the years that the color of the inks last well over time and that the ink does not cause bad reactions in their customers. My tattooist trusts his ink because he's been using it without incident for 20 years. This experience is the best qualification a potential tattoo customer can get at this time.

The most important aspect of getting a tattoo is doing the research. Inquire about the ink used by the shop. What is the artist's experience with it? How long has he or she been using this particular ink? Knowledge combined with sterile procedure and a skilled artist can make your tattoo beautiful and healthy for years.


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