Tattoo Dyes and Pigments

Dipping into the ink

If you are considering getting a tattoo, you may be wondering about the dyes and pigments tattoo professionals use. These dyes and pigments are placed directly under your skin using a tattoo gun, so it is wise to educate yourself regarding allergic reactions and what the ingredients are in the dyes and pigments used in tattoo ink. Tattoo dyes and pigments are not FDA approved, and there has been little research done on how toxic tattoo inks actually may be.

What Is in Tattoo Dyes and Pigments?

It's very difficult to actually know what is in tattoo dyes and pigments. Many tattoo professionals keep their ingredients a secret. However, most of the pigments used today are metal salts, plastics, and possibly vegetable dyes.

Carriers

Most pigments are mixed with a carrier to keep the pigment evenly distributed during application, to aid in application to the skin and to inhibit the growth of pathogens. The following carriers are considered to be safe, if made up one or a combination of the following ingredients.

  • Ethyl Alcohol (ethanol)
  • Purified Water
  • Witch Hazel
  • Listerine
  • Propylene Gylcol
  • Glycerine (glycerol)

Carriers may also be made up of the following ingredients. These ingredients are not as safe for tattoos as they can cause burns, and/or are toxic.

  • Denatured Alcohols
  • Other alcohols (such as methyl alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, rubbing alcohols)
  • Ethylene Glycol (also known as antifreeze)
  • Aldehydes, such as formaldehyde and gluteraldehyde

Pigments

There are at least fifty different kinds of pigments used in tattoos. Pigments are usually metal salts and industrial paints. Many pigments contain a great deal of copper, lead and lithium, all of which is toxic in high dosages.

Ink

While each ink manufacturer uses their own blend of pigments to produce colors, according to BMEzine, several pigments are used frequently:

Black

  • Iron Oxide
  • Logwood
  • Carbon

Brown

  • Ochre
  • Silica
  • Iron oxide

Red

  • Cinnabar (toxic)
  • Cadmium Red (toxic)
  • Iron Oxide
  • Napthol-AS pigment (less allergic reactions reported)

Note: Red pigments are often toxic and more commonly cause allergic reactions than other pigments.

Orange

  • Disazodiarylide and/or disazopyrazolone
  • Cadmium seleno-sulfide

Yellow

  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Ochres
  • Curcuma Yellow
  • Chrome Yellow

Reactions are more common with yellow pigments than others due the high amount needed to create a bright color.

Green

  • Chromium Oxide (Cr2O3), called Casalis Green or Anadomis Green
  • Malachite
  • Ferrocyanides and Ferricyanides
  • Lead chromate
  • Monoazo pigment
  • Cu/Al phthalocyanine
  • Cu phthalocyanine

Blue

  • Azure Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Cu-phthalocyanine

Blues tend to be made up of copper, carbonate (azurite), sodium aluminum silicate (lapis lazuli), calcium copper silicate (Egyptian Blue), other cobalt aluminum oxides and chromium oxides.

Violet or Purple

  • Manganese Violet
  • Quinacridone
  • Dioxazine/carbazole

Purples tend to lose their brightness over time, especially if exposed to sunlight.

Whites

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Lead White (Lead Carbonate)
  • Barium Sulfate
  • Zinc Oxide

Special Caution

Some tattoo pigments now glow in the dark in response to black lights. Some of these glowing pigments are actually radioactive or toxic, so speak to your tattoo artist, or possibly your doctor, before deciding to use one of these pigments in a tattoo.

Allergies

True allergic reactions to tattoo dyes and pigments are rare, although they can happen. If you have sensitive skin or experience reactions to chemicals easily, let your tattoo artist know. Red and yellow pigments do have higher incidences of allergic reactions.

Understand the Risks

The biggest questions about safety and tattoo dyes and pigments seem to be about long-term effects. While it seems that tattooing is safe for the short term in the majority of people, there have been no long term studies on the effects of the pigments and dyes.

The FDA does not regulate ingredients used in tattoo dyes and pigments. Tattoo ink manufacturers often will not disclose what they put into their inks, leaving even the artist in the dark. Do what research you can into what pigments and dyes are being used in tattoos today before you get inked. Remember that a reaction can occur even if you've been inked with a specific color in the past with no problems.

Some tattoo artists mix their own colors and others can advise you as to which pigments lose color more quickly or which may be linked to higher rates of reactions. Ask questions each time you get a new tat. You may find tweaking the colors used in your design based on what you learn can lead to a better result overall.

Get a Tattoo Color You Love

Once you know what's going into your tattoo, take the time to have your artist mix up a color that you truly love. With the number of pigments available today, you shouldn't have any trouble getting exactly the shade you want.

Tattoo Dyes and Pigments