Tattoo inks consist of pigments combined with a carrier, used in tattooing.

Bottles of tattoo ink


Tattoo inks are available in a range of colors that can be thinned or mixed together to produce other colors and shades. Most professional tattoo artists purchase inks pre-made (known as pre-dispersed inks), while some tattooers mix their own using a dry pigment and a carrier.[1]

Various tattoo ink manufacturers also produce vegan-friendly inks that do not contain any animal by-products like bone char, glycerin, gelatin, and shellac.[2]

Pigment basesEdit

Manufacturers are not required to reveal their ingredients or conduct trials, and recipes may be proprietary. Professional inks may be made from iron oxides (rust), metal salts, or plastics.[1] Homemade or traditional tattoo inks may be made from pen ink, soot, dirt, ash, blood, or other ingredients.[3][4]

Metal salts used for tattoo inks include those based on nickel (black), zinc (yellow, white), chromium (green), aluminium (green, violet), titanium (white), copper (blue, green), and iron (brown, red, black) as well as the toxic heavy metals cobalt (blue), mercury (red), lead (yellow, green, white), cadmium (red, orange, yellow), and barium (white). Organic chemicals used include azo-chemicals (orange, brown, yellow, green, violet) and naptha-derived chemicals (red). Carbon is also used for black.[5] Other elements used as pigments include antimony, arsenic, beryllium, calcium, lithium, selenium, and sulphur.[6][4]

Tattoo ink manufacturers typically blend the metal pigments and/or use lightening agents (such as lead or titanium) to reduce production costs.[4] Tattoo inks contaminated with metal allergens have been known to cause severe reactions, sometimes years later, when the original ink is not available for testing, see metal allergy.[7]


A carrier acts as a solvent for the pigment, to "carry" the pigment from the point of needle trauma to the surrounding dermis. Carriers keep the ink evenly mixed and free from pathogens, and aid application. The most typical solvent is ethyl alcohol or distilled water, but denatured alcohols, methanol, rubbing alcohol, propylene glycol, and glycerine are also used. When an alcohol is used as part of the carrier base in tattoo ink or to disinfect the skin before application of the tattoo, it increases the skin's permeability, helping to transport more pigment into the skin.


Carbon-based pigments such as soot have been used to create tattoos on human skin all across the world for at least the last 5,300 years. The oldest examples of carbon-based tattooing discovered to date appear as 61 marks on the body of the 5,300-year-old Tyrolean ice mummy known as Ötzi, discovered in 1991 near Similaun mountain and Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy.[8] This is also believed to be the oldest example of all human tattooing. Skin samples from several of the iceman's tattoos were examined by researchers using optical microscopes, bright-field transmission electron microscopy, energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, electron energy-loss spectrometry, energy filtering transmission electron microscopy, and electron diffraction.[9] This work determined that Ötzi's tattoos were created using carbon-based pigments derived from soot and ash. Microscopic quartz crystals identified among the carbon particles are believed to have originated from stones around the fireplace where the carbon was collected.

Carbon-based tattoo pigments were used throughout the ancient world,[10] and carbon continues to be a principal ingredient in modern tattoo ink.[11]


In the United States, tattoo inks are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as cosmetics and color additives. This regulatory authority is, however, not generally exercised.[3] The FDA and medical practitioners have noted that many ink pigments used in tattoos are "industrial strength colors suitable for printers' ink or automobile paint".[3][12]

In California, Proposition 65 requires that Californians be warned before exposure to certain harmful chemicals. Therefore tattoo parlors in California must warn their patrons that tattoo inks contain heavy metals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.[6]

Health effectsEdit

Pigments in tattoo ink may cause allergic reactions in skin, especially red, green, yellow and blue pigments.[13]

Tattoo pigments may migrate into lymph nodes, including toxic elements in ink such as chromium.[14] Long-term studies would be needed to determine if pigments in human lymph nodes have harmful effects.[15] In medical imaging, such as mammography,[16] pigments in lymph nodes may be accidentally interpreted as abnormal results, giving false positive results for cancer.[17][18] Treatment of cancer may include using blue dye in the body to detect a sentinel lymph node, so existing tattoo pigments in lymph nodes may cause difficulty in identifying and treating sentinel nodes.[19][20]


Tattoo ink is generally permanent. Tattoo removal is difficult, painful, and the degree of success depends on the materials used.

Removable inkEdit

While tattoo ink is generally very painful and laborious to remove, tattoo removal being quite involved, a recently introduced ink has been developed to be easier to remove by laser treatments than traditional inks. R. Rox Anderson invented a tattoo ink designed to simplify tattoo removal called "InfinitInk". The ink is encapsulated in tiny plastic beads; the encapsulated ink is stable in normal light, but under the same kind of laser light used in laser tattoo removal, the ink is released from the beads and is absorbed.[21] Anderson co-founded a company called Freedom-2 to bring the ink to market[22] with assistance from Edith Mathiowitz, Joshua Reineke and A. Peter Morello of Brown University.[23]

Semi-permanent inkEdit

A company in New York City, Ephemeral, advertises its proprietary tattoo ink as fading 9-15 months after application.[24]

Specialty inksEdit

Glow in the dark ink and blacklight inkEdit

Both blacklight and glow in the dark inks have been used for tattooing. Glow-in-the-dark tattoo ink absorbs and retains light, and then glows in darkened conditions by process of phosphorescence. Blacklight ink does not glow in the dark, but reacts to non-visible UV light, producing a visible glow by fluorescence. The resulting glow of both these inks is highly variable.

The safety of such inks for use on humans is widely debated in the tattoo community.

The ingredients in some "glow" inks are listed as: (PMMA) Polymethylmethacrylate 97.5% and microspheres of fluorescent dye 2.5% suspended in UV sterilized, distilled water.

Black hennaEdit

Health Canada has advised against the use of "black henna" temporary tattoo ink which contains para-phenylenediamine (PPD), an ingredient in hair dyes. Black henna is normally applied externally in temporary Mehandi applications, rather than being inserted beneath the skin in a permanent tattoo.

Another ink may be used instead of black henna, such as "Jagua", a fruit based ink proven to be a healthier alternative to black henna.

Allergic reactions to PPD include rashes, contact dermatitis, itching, blisters, open sores, scarring and other potentially harmful effects.[25]


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