Tattoo Ink Allergic Reactions & Allergy Advice

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 15, 2018
    Last Updated: March 17, 2022

Tattoo ink allergies are rare, affecting fewer than one percent of people who get tattooed. Nevertheless, you should take the time to know the signs and symptoms of an ink allergy, so you can take care of it as soon as the symptoms show up.

It’s important to consider this even if the tattoo you’re getting isn’t your first. Not all tattoo inks are made of the same components, so even if your first tattoo turned out fine, you might still have an allergic reaction from the next one you get.

What Is an Ink Allergy?

A tattoo allergy manifests itself as one or more skin abnormalities at the site of a tattoo, as a result of the body’s over-reaction to the foreign ink.

Most cases of allergic reactions are tattoos containing yellow or red ink. Other tattoo ink colors could still cause a reaction but are much less likely to do so.

If you have an allergic reaction to the ink in your tattoo, it will probably show up as a red, itchy rash. Your skin could also flake and take on a scaly appearance. In some rare cases, your allergy might cause small bumps to form across the tattoo.

Tattoo ink allergies are one of the more common tattoo healing issues, although most cases are minor.

It’s important to know that not every skin condition that results from getting a tattoo, is an allergic reaction. It’s common for people with a new tattoo to experience inflammation (redness, swelling, and irritation).

This is usually just the skin’s reaction to the tattoo gun and not necessarily a sign that you have an allergy to the ink. This kind of inflammation is also relatively benign and should resolve itself within a few weeks, whereas an allergic reaction is itchy, persists, and progresses over time.

What Causes Them?

Professional tattoo artists use special, high-quality ink when doing their work. The ink they’re injecting into your skin needs to be permanent and it has to stay looking vibrant as long as it can. They can’t get those kinds of results with just any old tattoo ink.

Heavy Metals

So, what is it about the tattoo ink that causes allergic reactions in some people?

Whether they purchase pre-made ink or mix their own, the professional-grade ink your artist uses will likely contain some heavy metals. It’s those metals that are responsible for the dermatitis (those itchy, red rashes) in those with tattoo ink allergies.

Yet, here’s where it gets complicated. Not everyone who has an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink is having a reaction to the same metals. If some of the metals in one kind of ink give you an allergic reaction, there might be other kinds of ink (with other kinds of metal) that will work perfectly well for you.

Avoiding certain metals in your ink can be tricky, and different colors use different metals. Some red tattoo inks contain mercury, cadmium, or iron oxide, for instance, and yellow inks might contain lead, while black inks contain iron oxides. Depending on which metals give you an allergic reaction, you might be able to get a tattoo without any adverse effects simply by choosing a design that doesn’t include a color made with that metal.

You may sound frightened by the number of heavy metals found in tattoo ink, but tattoo ink poisoning is actually extremely rare.

Don’t “Solve” the Problem by Working with an Amateur

Ironically, this is the one negative reaction that you might be able to avoid by getting a tattoo from an amateur, or someone using non-professional-grade equipment, because lower grade and less permanent inks don’t have the same heavy metals found in tattoo ink.  Most of these heavy metals are used to make the colors pop and appear more vibrant, after all.

That doesn’t mean we endorse getting a tattoo from anyone other than a professional. The risk of infection and other complications is far too high and it’s simply not worth it, even if it means you could avoid an allergic reaction.

Your best bet is to consult a professional artist and work directly with them to find alternatives that are compatible with your body. It’s definitely not recommended to allow somebody to use homemade tattoo ink on your skin unless they’re extremely certain about what they’re doing. 

This could be a possible allergic reaction.  It may also be an allergic reaction to something being applied to the area, so a proper evaluation with a Board Certified Dermatologist is always recommended.

How To Know You Might Be Allergic

If you are allergic to tattoo ink, you don’t have to wait until your half-sleeve starts itching to find out.

There are a couple of methods you can use to know whether you’ll have an allergic reaction to the ink before undergoing a full tattoo session.

Other Colorant Allergies

If you’re allergic to colorants of any kind, there’s a good chance you’re allergic to tattoo ink also.

If you get allergic reactions from food dyes, printer ink, and other colorants, be aware that you’re more likely to have a bad reaction to tattoo ink.

Patch Test

The patch test is a simple procedure that you can do directly with your tattoo artist. It involves applying the tattoo ink that will be used to tattoo you on a patch of your skin. After 24 hours, if you don’t have any kind of swelling or redness on that patch, you’re probably in the clear to use the ink.

If the patch test fails, however, you can try an alternative type of ink. Though, to be safe, perform another patch test with the new ink before getting tattooed.

Delayed Symptoms

Most people with tattoo allergies experience the symptoms soon after coming into contact with the tattoo ink. However, some people may develop a skin rash weeks, months, or even years after getting the tattoo. Old tattoos can also sometimes raise, and allergies can be a main cause of this, although not in every circumstance.

There is a medical condition called Sarcoidosis that may present in the skin with bumps and nodules as a late response to a tattoo in predisposed individuals.  This is an indication to see your doctor for a more comprehensive evaluation.

If you’re in the latter camp, the skin patch tests won’t be able to warn you about your allergic reaction, and you might only discover it after getting a tattoo.

Treatment Methods

Your tattoo is pretty darn permanent. Therefore, when you start noticing the itching, redness, and swelling, it’s not like you can just take the tattoo off and let your skin recover.

What are you supposed to do, then, if your tattoo allergy flares up?

Over-the-Counter Solutions

There are some over-the-counter products you can get to alleviate some of the symptoms of your tattoo ink allergy.

When you start noticing symptoms on your skin, you can apply hydrocortisone cream 2-3 times a day for up to 2 weeks to the affected area. These products can give you some relief from the pain and discomfort. Applying a cold compress or itch relieving cream can also help.  Don’t be tempted to apply an antibiotic ointment as this is often a cause for allergic reactions and will likely just complicate your situation.

If you have serious tattoo allergy symptoms, however, they are likely to persist so please seek medical treatment.

New tattoos can also be sensitive to various over-the-counter solutions, so always consult your tattoo artist before trying anything new. A good tattoo aftercare cream could also be useful in keeping the area well-nourished and moisturized to help prevent any extreme flaking or itchiness.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan 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. Click here to buy from Amazon.

See a Dermatologist

Your doctor, specifically a board-certified dermatologist will be able to assess how serious the allergic reaction on your skin is, and what steps you should take to deal with it. Depending on the severity, it may require medical intervention, such as antibiotics (if the rash has turned into an infection), topical, oral, or intralesional corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.

Laser Removal

These allergic reactions – redness, itchiness, swelling – all sound relatively minor, but they’re no fun to live with, especially when you consider that the ink is going to stay with you for life.

If over-the-counter treatments aren’t effective and your dermatologist’s medical interventions don’t take care of the symptoms, or if the symptoms repeatedly go away and then come back, you might need to get the tattoo removed.

Tattoo removal creams are the cheapest option and they’re the easiest to use but, unfortunately, they don’t work very well. At best, they can help fade your tattoo a tiny bit, but they won’t eliminate the ink particles that contain the heavy metals responsible for your allergic reaction.

The best and most effective way to remove your tattoo is with laser treatment. Your family doctor almost certainly does not have a tattoo removal laser on hand at their practice, so you’ll need to see a tattoo removal specialist at a Board Certified Dermatologist office to get the procedure done. Your tattoo artist may be able to give you suggestions for local clinics.  Be sure to vet the place you go for treatment in order to get optimal results and minimize risks for scarring.


A tattoo ink allergy is not pleasant to deal with, especially if it means you have to get your tattoo lasered off.

If you think you might be allergic to the ink or just want to be extra safe, ask your tattoo artist to perform a patch test or tattoo a dot on your skin before you get a complete tattoo. Tattoos are permanent, so you’ll want to be as certain as possible beforehand that your skin will happily accept the ink.

If you do discover an allergy, don’t give up hope. There are alternatives you can use to still get tattooed, whether it’s using different colors or trying out specialized inks. Your tattoo artist will be able to go over these options with you and help you find the right one.