Tattoo Dyes and Pigments

Contributor: Jennifer Betts
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.

What Is in Tattoo Dyes and Pigments?

Tattoo dyes and pigments are not FDA approved, and there has been little research done on how toxic tattoo inks actually may be. It's very difficult to actually know what is in tattoo dyes and pigments as manufacturers are not required to reveal the ingredients. 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 of one or a combination of the following ingredients.

  • Ethyl Alcohol (ethanol) - A grain alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, ethyl alcohol does have the capacity to cause dry skin and effects on the nervous and respiratory system.
  • Purified Water - This is water that uses reverse osmosis, filtration and distillation to remove contaminates.
  • Witch Hazel - Derived from the plant, Hamamelis virginiana, this compound may cause local irritation.
  • Listerine - An alcohol mixture containing menthol, thymol, methyl salicylate and eucalyptol, this chemical is used as an anti-infective agent that can cause skin irritation and local allergic reactions.
  • Propylene Glycol - A synthetic organic compound generally considered safe that can affect the liver and kidneys in larger doses or those with illness or disease.
  • Glycerin (glycerol) - This is a sugar alcohol that can have diuretic or laxative effects.

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 are 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

Iron oxide is made from iron and oxygen, seen in nature as rust. Logwood is a natural dye from logwood tree extracts, while carbon is ash or soot.

Brown

  • Ochre
  • Iron oxide

Browns are typically created from iron oxide and iron ochre clay.

Red

  • Cinnabar
  • Cadmium Red
  • Iron Oxide
  • Naphthol-AS pigment

Cinnabar is considered toxic and comes from mercury sulfide. Cadmium red is derived from the heavy metal cadmium and possibly carcinogenic. Naphthol-AS pigment is classified as an azo pigment and used in manufacturing. This pigment has been noted to have fewer allergic reactions reported. Note: Red pigments are often toxic and more commonly cause allergic reactions than other pigments.

Orange

  • Disazodiarylide and/or disazopyrazolone
  • Cadmium sulfide

Disazodiarylide is an organic pigment, while cadmium sulfide is an inorganic pigment that is toxic and possibly carcinogenic.

Yellow

  • Cadmium sulfide
  • Ochre
  • Curcuma Yellow
  • Chrome Yellow

Curcuma yellow is created from turmeric or curcumin, which are natural substances. Chrome yellow is derived from lead, a toxic metal. 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
  • Lead chromate
  • Monoazo pigment
  • Cu phthalocyanine

Chromium oxide and Malachite are natural minerals. Lead chromate is derived from lead and toxic. Monoazo pigment is an organic compound used in industry, while Cu phthalocyanine is a synthetic pigment, with no current known toxicity.

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

Dioxazine/carbazole and quinacridone are organic compounds. Quinacridone is a FDA approved food colorant but it does cause inflammatory reactions in tattoos. Manganese is an inorganic compound made of ammonium manganese pyrophosophate. Purples tend to lose their brightness over time, especially if exposed to sunlight.

Whites

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

Titanium dioxide is a naturally occurring oxide that has caused cancer in animals. Lead white contains lead and may cause cancer in humans. Barium sulfate is derived from the metal barium and may irritate the skin. The inorganic compound zinc oxide that can cause skin irritation.

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.

Toxic Chemicals

There are several chemicals used in tattoo inks that are considered toxic. While this article will go over these in more detail, you should discuss any inks containing these substances with your artist or doctor before using them.

Denatured Alcohols

Denatured Alchol is is ethanol with added substances that render it toxic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It can irritate and even burn skin and cause harmful effects when absorbed into the system.

Heavy Metals

To add permeance and brightness to the ink itself, some tattoo inks may contain small amounts of chemicals such as mercury, lead, beryllium, nickel and even arsenic. While these can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions, several of these metals are toxic and cause long-term problems like cancer or birth defects. For example, mercury is a neurotoxin that can lead to nervous system defects, while arsenic and beryllium are classified as carcinogens by the EPA.

Ethylene Glycol

A toxic compound found in antifreeze and brake fluid, as well as solvents, Ethylene Glycol can cause issues with the kidneys and heart. However, it is poorly absorbed through the skin, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Aldehydes

This chemical is an organic compound that includes formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde which are the main chemicals found in embalming fluid and several solvents. Formaldehyde is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen.

Less Toxic Brands

While the pigments and carriers for tattoo ink can vary widely, there are several brands that are known to be less toxic. These brands generally utilize nontoxic carriers and pigments, and most are vegan, meaning they are free of animal byproducts. All of these brands offer consumers Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), where you can find all the information on hazardous ingredients and safety precautions. These brands include:

  • Eternal Ink: According to Eternal Ink, their products are made from organic pigments, deionized water and hamamelis water. They are vegan and are regularly tested.
  • Victory Tattoo Ink: These are made in America using pure natural pigments.
  • Skin Candy: This tattoo ink manufacturer are regularly tested and bottled on site in their clean room facility.
  • Kuro Sumi: Made with organic, vegan-friendly ingredients, Kuro Sumi inks were originally formulated in Japan and, according to the company, completely safe.

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