tattoo ink

December 7, 2021
By Bytewrthy
In Colloquy, Eco-Wellness

Skin Deep: Do You Really Know What’s in Your Tattoo?

tattoo ink

Tattooing has been around for centuries: Archeological records show that the practice dates as far back as Neolithic and even Paleolithic times, but it’s only in the 1930s that this ancient practice starts resembling the tattooing we know today, decades after the invention of the electric tattoo machine. First adopted as a mark of the counterculture, tattoos have now become an integral part of pop culture, and the growth of the tattoo industry over the 20th and 21st century has brought along a growing variety of styles and techniques, spearheaded by world-renowned artists.

Head down to your local neighborhood today and you’ll likely find dozens of tattoo studios specializing in everything from intricate Japanese sleeves to sailor-inspired iconography. But surprisingly enough, one aspect of the practice that hasn’t really changed throughout this time is the fundamental thing that makes tattooing possible: Tattoo ink.

While some historical ingredients like charcoal, pine bark, and ash have long been phased out, the metals that have been used to create tattoo ink since the 30s and 40s have largely remained unchanged. If you care about what you put on your body when it comes to makeup and skincare, the question comes naturally: Are these ingredients safe, and how can you make sure your tattoo is as good for your skin as it is on your skin?

So what’s in tattoo ink, exactly?

Not many people know what tattoo ink is made of, and more often than not, this includes tattoo artists as well. In fact, if you were to ask your chosen artist to disclose what’s in their ink, they will likely have to do a little research first — ink brands are not required by law to disclose their ingredients!

However, no matter the brand, the core formula of tattoo ink is always made of pigment and carrier: A colorant that gives the tattoo its vibrant shade and a liquid solution that carries the pigment and keeps it evenly mixed from the needle to your skin. Commonly used colors like black contain soot, iron oxide (rust), or even bone char, while more vibrant colors like red, yellow, and green will generally be made of heavy metals like aluminum, copper, titanium, iron, mercury, lead, and nickel.

When it comes to carriers, most tattoo inks will contain common solvents like distilled water and ethyl alcohol, although methyl alcohol, propylene glycol, and glycerine are also found in some formulas. Keep in mind that some tattoo artists, especially those who are well-known in the industry, do create their own formulas, so if you want to know how they make their ink and what ingredients they use, you should make sure to ask before booking your next piece.

Are tattoo ink ingredients safe?

If ingredients like mercury, lead, and nickel are already giving you quite the scare, you’re definitely not alone: The presence of heavy metals in most common tattoo inks, detectable or not, is hard to ignore. Both mineral and metal-based inks are made from ingredients that are not deemed safe for topical use, let alone intradermal use. But heavy metal pigments are slowly being phased out in favor of more modern and safer formulas containing carbon-based and azo pigments.

These organic dyes are more commonly used in the textile and food industry, and they are created by synthesizing diazonium salts with electron-donating groups. The two most popular ink manufacturers on the market, Eternal Ink and Intenze Ink, use organic pigments and deionized water, and they are both vegan-friendly and cruelty-free. Both brands assure that their inks are free from any known carcinogen, preservatives, and mutagenic substances, and that they have been tested for heavy metal content, found to be well below the legal detection limit of <1 PPM.

Now, heavy metal-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy or safe, as trace amounts of metals can still be found in organic formulas.

Tattoo ink testing is not yet enforced in the States, as the FDA does not play a large role in regulating what goes and doesn’t go in tattoo ink, except for when they enforce recalls of contaminated ink bottles. This means that no ink on the market has been vetted for safe use on skin!

Across the pond, regulations have become a lot stricter: Starting in January 2022, the EU is set to enforce a ban on virtually all tattoo inks, as potentially hazardous chemicals have been found in over 4000 substances used in mainstream ink. The move is certainly controversial, as there is currently no evidence backing the claim that tattoos and tattoo inks constitute a cancer risk.

This is exactly where the problem with tattoo inks lies: While there is not enough testing being done to ensure both metal and organic inks are safe for intradermal use, there is also no evidence of the contrary. Tattoo ink safety falls in the grey area, and in many ways, uncharted territory.

Putting permanent ink in your skin is a risk that should be considered carefully and only after getting informed about the precarious nature of the tattoo ink industry, and if you decide to get your next piece booked after all, proper aftercare is essential. Use plenty of sunscreen to keep your tattoo pigment crisp and clear, avoid bathing the tattooed area for at least a couple of weeks after getting inked, and keep it moisturized with fragrance-free oils through the healing period — your tattoo will stand the test of time!

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