What Is Tattoo Ink Made Of?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on August 12, 2019
    Last Updated: March 11, 2022

It is not always easy to know for certain what goes into tattoo ink. The main problem in identifying the ingredients of the ink is related to the FDA regulations, or rather, lack of them.

There are no federal regulations for inks placed under the skin, compared to foods, or even some cosmetics. A study by the University of Arizona found that nearly every brand of tattoo ink uses different ingredients.  

What Makes Ink Tattoo Ink?

While ink producers are not required to list ingredients or conduct trials, most tattoo inks use some form of pigmentation, along with a carrier or base substance. In terms of ingredients, most professional tattoo inks contain metal salts, iron oxides, or plastics to allow the ink to remain stable within the skin over many years. Certain ingredients are also added to ensure the inks don’t expire too quickly.

Tattoo Ink Composition

Carriers will keep the ink more evenly mixed, free from pathogens and aid in application. When alcohol is used as a base, it will increase the permeability of the skin, transporting more pigment into the dermis.

  • Ethyl alcohol
  • Distilled water
  • Denatured alcohols
  • Methanol
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Propylene glycol
  • Glycerine

Homemade tattoo inks will often use vodka as a carrier. Carriers are normally harmless substances which, if administered correctly, will prevent infection or any potential ink poisoning.

Pigments Used in Tattoo Ink

Pigments are what give tattoos the often-vivid colors. In the past, pigments used to be made with ground-up carbon or ash to create a black ink. Many ancient tribes used the soot from charred woods for their tribal markings.

Today’s inks still use some original mineral pigments, in addition to modern industrial organic ones. Certain pigments might also be vegetable-based or plastic-based, depending on the color required.

The controversy with some pigments arises from the use of heavy metals to make the basic colors. Different ones are used to create specific colors; as follows:

  • Mercury for red
  • Lead for yellow, green or white
  • Cadmium for red, orange or yellow
  • Nickel for black
  • Zinc for yellow or white
  • Chromium for green
  • Cobalt for blue
  • Aluminum for green or violet
  • Titanium for white
  • Copper for blue or green
  • Iron for brown, red or black
  • Barium for white

To reduce production costs, some tattoo ink manufacturers will blend heavy metal pigments with lightening agents, like lead or titanium. Pigments can also be made from other elements, including calcium, antimony, beryllium, sulfur or arsenic.

Research has found that tattoo inks use more than 200 different types of colorants and additives, including the heavy metals, but not usually enough to effects things like MRI scanners or metal detectors.

While many of the pigments have been approved for cosmetic use, others have been developed for industrial purposes. This includes pigments found in automotive paints or printer ink, which were never intended for use on our skin.

Are Organic or Vegan Tattoo Inks Safer?

The trend towards vegan foods and organic products makes people think that organic inks will also be healthier or safer. Over the last two decades, many ink manufacturers have made the transition from mineral-based inks to organic ones. About 80 percent of these inks are carbon-based while 60 percent may also use azo pigments.

Some organic inks will be produced using animal products, like bone char, shellac from beetles, or animal fat glycerin. Other organic compounds used for pigmentation can include beeswax or cod liver oil.

Manufacturers creating vegan tattoo inks for the vegan market will usually replace animal byproducts, like animal glycerin, with a vegetable glycerine and Virginiana extracts.

Although many of the toxic substances may be absent from organic inks, they can still contain heavy metals, like titanium oxide. They are not totally risk-free either, with the risk of contamination in the manufacturing process still present depending on production environments and sterilization methods.

Glow In The Dark Tattoo Inks

Tattoos that will glow when in darker environments are growing in popularity. Personally, I find these quite scary, almost like a radioactive glow on your body. Also referred to as UV tattoos or blacklight tattoos, they are made with ingredients that react when exposed to ultraviolet light.

Some of these inks may contain phosphorus, which can be toxic depending on the source or method of delivery. Those which don’t still might contain plant-based ingredients that can cause allergic reactions. Studies have found there have been more adverse skin reactions to UV tattoos than traditional ink-based tattoos.

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