Today’s tattoo artists have a wider range of inks available to them than ever before. In addition to blacks, greys, and primary colors, there are hundreds of shades and hues from across the color spectrum. For all this diversity, however, the basic components that make any tattoo ink are fairly similar.
Tattoo Ink Ingredients
Every tattoo ink is a solution comprised of two basic ingredients: a carrier liquid and a pigment.
The carrier liquid is the solvent that transports and distributes the pigment from the point of a tattoo needle into the application site. Additionally, many carrier liquids help reduce the risk of infection during tattooing. Most brands of tattoo ink have similar carrier liquids, and some of the most common are:
- Ethyl alcohol
- Distilled water
- Witch hazel
- Isopropyl alcohol
The second ingredient — the pigment — is what gives each ink its distinct color. Historically, pigments for tattooing were derived from mineral sources, but in the last few decades producers of tattoo ink have shifted away from mineral sources and towards manufacturable carbon-based pigments. While many of these pigments have been tested and approved for cosmetic use, some were derived for industrial purposes and not intended for use on humans. Additionally, some heavy metal elements are still used to make many primary and secondary color pigments. The most common of these are:
- Red: Mercury, cadmium, iron
- Blue: Cobalt, copper
- Yellow: Lead, cadmium, zinc
- Green: Lead, chromium, aluminum
- White: Lead, titanium, barium
Is Tattoo Ink Dangerous?
It can be difficult to know for sure what specific minerals and pigments any given tattoo ink contains, as tattoo inks are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration. That means companies are not required to disclose the exact contents of their pigment blends. While it is well understood that excessive exposure to heavy metal elements contained in some tattoo inks can be toxic, and while scientists also suspect that there may be some health risks with carbon-based pigments, quality ink producers have a clear interest in maintaining the safety of their products and the health of their customers.
All quality tattoo inks will include on their packaging the name and address of the producer, production and expiration dates, batch numbers, storage information, a guarantee of sterility, and customer service contact information. This information allows customers, artists, and producers to trace any tainted or problematic inks back to their source. If the packaging of any particular ink doesn’t contain this information, don’t use it. Additionally, do not use any ink that was already opened or expired when you received it.
If you are using a quality ink, the only other major factor to consider when weighing the health risk of a tattoo is the amount of ink that will be applied. A 2”x 2” design will require far less ink than a half sleeve, for example, and will expose you to fewer of the potentially dangerous substances found in some tattoo inks.
If you have questions or concerns about getting a tattoo or about a particular brand or color of ink, you should discuss them with an artist at your local tattoo shop. You can also check the website of the ink producer or the PainfulPleasures infocenter for material safety and composition information. But overall, the contents of a high quality ink will be less important in determining how risky your tattoo is than the cleanliness of the shop you go to and the sterility of the equipment they use.
What Tattoo Ink is Best?
Unfortunately, there’s no single answer to this question, as each artist has their own preferences based on the technical and aesthetic properties of each brand and color of ink, as well as what a specific piece may require. If you’re curious about what type of ink might be best for your tattoo design or why your artist prefers a specific brand of ink, just ask them. As long as they’re using high quality ink from a reputable brand, you’re in good hands.