Is Tattoo Ink Toxic?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 14, 2019
    Last Updated: November 10, 2020

Less than two decades ago, having a tattoo would have been a very risqué thing to do. Now, almost 29 percent of US citizens have at least one tattoo. It’s become more of a fashion statement than ever before.

If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, you’ve probably thought about the safety and cleanliness of the tattoo parlor. Finding a reputable tattoo artist will also be on your list. Something you might not think about is the safety of the ink being used for your permanent body art.

New reports are now raising questions about the safety of tattoo inks. There are few regulations, and some inks contain chemicals and heavy metals.

So yes, some tattoo inks are toxic. You can, nevertheless, take precautions to ensure the inks being used on your own body are as safe as possible.  

Regulation of Tattoo Inks Is Long Overdue

Ink manufacturers use a variety of chemicals and heavy metals. Yes, there are some natural ingredients, but on the whole, what you’re putting in your skin is not too pleasant.

Research is underway looking at tattoo ink toxicity, and the results aren’t looking too good. Did you realize, for example, that some of the pigments in the ink are repurposed from the car paint, plastics, or textile industry?

The tattoo industry in the U.S. is primarily regulated on a state or provincial level, which means there are a variety of standards and guidelines. Recent concerns raised by the FDA include:

  • When tattoos are exposed to sunlight in the summer, they become inflamed and itchy
  • Granulomas — small knots or bumps — forming around areas of the body where there’s a tattoo
  • Tattoo ink spreading through the bloodstream, to the body’s lymphatic system and liver
  • Allergic reactions

With so many concerns, tattoo artists hope that the FDA will soon look into better and tighter regulations.

Tattoo Inks –  What Exactly Do They Contain?

The main ingredients of tattoo inks are colorant and water. A report commissioned by the Joint Research Council in 2017 found that over 100 colorants can be found within tattoo ink. Over three-quarters of the colorants found were synthetic dyes — the most common of which were azo pigments. These pigments are widely used for dyeing fabrics and to color a variety of other things. Once absorbed into your body, they can damage your health and the environment.  

The chemicals of most concern were polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), of which benzopyrene is one. These types of chemicals are thought to cause cancer, and black inks are more likely to contain these ingredients.

Other impurities found in tattoo ink include potentially harmful metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt, and chromium. The damage these metals can cause to the human body is dependent on the type and level of exposure.  

Is There Anything You Can Do to Reduce the Risk?

Should you cancel your appointment with the tattoo artist right away? It’s a little too early for such a dramatic ban on having a tattoo. The best way to look at it is to be sure you want one before you commit. It will be with you for life. That’s a long time if you decide you don’t like it or you’re worried about your health.

Here are some tips if you’re considering getting inked:

  • Know where the inks come from — speak with the tattoo artist
  • Ask your tattoo artist if you can bring your own tattoo ink to the sitting
  • Be wary of unbranded inks
  • Regularly check for signs of a rash, infection or reaction
  • Choose a tattoo artist with a license and a good reputation
  • Only get tattooed in studios that care about hygiene levels

Are Non-Toxic Tattoo Inks Available?

It’s not all doom and gloom when talking about tattoo inks. Non-toxic inks are now available on the market. An increasing number of ink manufacturers are producing products that are vegan-friendly, non-toxic, and that contain organic ingredients.

Here are some ingredients to look for:

  • Turmeric
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Carbon and logwood
  • Sodium, copper, and aluminum
  • Naphthol
  • Carbazole and dioxazine
  • Monoazo

To be labeled an “organic” ink, ingredients from nature have to be used for its production. If the ink has a non-toxic label as well, there’ll be no heavy metals or other harmful elements. Just because a product contains natural ingredients doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe.

Inks said to be vegan-friendly won’t contain glycerin carriers, which are derivatives of animal fat. In addition, crushed bones won’t be used as part of the pigment production process.

Not Always as Toxic as You Might Think

If you find a reputable, licensed, and respected tattoo artist, you shouldn’t stress about whether the tattoo ink they use is toxic. More and more non-toxic inks are now available. Regulatory bodies, such as the FDA, are also now paying more attention to safety issues that might be raised.

When you eventually go ahead with getting your dream tattoo, it’s imperative that you always follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare advice closely, and be sure to invest in a high-quality tattoo healing lotion to aid recovery.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan-friendly aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really well hydrated, but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times, and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.​

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