Do You Know What’s In Your Tattoo Ink?

At one time, the most common way to apply a tattoo was to cut the skin and rub soot into the wound. While a version of these ancient practices may still be utilized by some artists, tattooing techniques and materials have largely evolved since the early days. Even so, a recent European ban on two commonly-used pigments has left many people wondering, “what’s in my tattoo ink?”


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Jessi (@jessi__tattooartist)

What is tattoo ink made of?

Modern inks consist of a pigment, which provides the color, and a liquid carrier. Pigments are typically made of metal salts. Other substances such as plastics or vegetable dyes may be used as well. Common carriers include ethyl alcohol, witch hazel, purified water, and glycerine. They’re often used by themselves or in combination.
Hundreds of substances can be used as pigments for tattoo ink, and they’re often mixed to get just the right color. Unlike a dye, which leaves a stain, the tattooing process deposits the color just below the surface of the skin. The particles in the ink are too big to be destroyed by the immune system, so they become stuck (in a good way). This is what creates the tattoo.
Tattoo Ink
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Emerging Regulation of Tattoo Inks

While the EU continues to crack down on inks deemed unsafe, tattoo ink remains unregulated in many countries. The US Food & Drug Administration classifies tattoo inks as “cosmetics” and only gets involved when there’s a problem. Companies and people that produce inks aren’t even required to reveal what’s in them.
Given tattoos’ long history as a symbol of independence, rebellion, and even, in some cultures, crime, the regulation of tattoo inks and practices seems almost comical. However, as tattoos find their place in a larger share of society, their safety is a concern for the greater good. A 2019 survey found that 30% of American adults have at least one tattoo. It goes up to 40% for the 18-34 crowd. That’s an astounding amount of ink; considering population estimates, we’re talking about nearly 77 million tattoos.
Because of this, leaders in the tattoo industry are working to help shape and enact rules to keep their customers safe. The Coalition for Tattoo Safety was formed as the Coalition for Tattoo Ink Safety in 2011. Their goal was to protect the interests of both consumers and the tattoo industry. In 2017, they expanded to include all aspects of tattoo safety. They, along with tattoo artists and others, are fighting the recent European ban, arguing that it will cause undue harm to the industry.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Jules Boho (

Know the Risks Before You Get Inked

With all that in mind, it’s important to know the risks before you go. Certain inks contain ingredients that may cause photosensitivity or allergic reactions (particularly reds). In 2018, a few inks were recalled due to contamination. Strangely, migrating tattoo ink has also been found in lymph nodes, resulting in health scares or, worse, unnecessary treatment.
Still, these experiences seem to be rare. A recent Men’s Health article cites an informal survey of 300 New Yorkers about their tattoos. Only 6 people, roughly 2% of those surveyed, reported any kind of negative reaction with their tattoo. And while a 2005 study found alarming levels of toxic substances in standard inks, the potential negative effects related to that exposure remained questionable. A more recent study ended with similar results.
Besides, even the FDA website devotes more real estate to the risk of regret than any one physical concern. So, as with all things tattoo-related, know what you’re getting into, consider all the risks, and make sure to choose your artist well.