The first truth about tattoo inks in the is that while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates substances people ingest and some of the ingredients individuals place on their skin, the agency does not regulate inks that are placed under the skin. That means you must trust the individuals who are providing the tattoo services to use safe inks. But what are safe inks?


You don’t get any help from the FDA here either. That’s because the agency does not require the ink makers to reveal the ingredients in their products. Tattoo inks include the pigment, which can include a variety of metallic salts (e.g., oxides, selenides, sulfides), organic dyes, or plastics, and the carriers with which they are mixed to help provide an even application of the ink.


The bottom line is that every brand and color of tattoo ink has different ingredients, according to a Northern Arizona University study, and since the makers don’t have to tell you what’s in their products, it is clearly a case of buyer beware. You can take steps to uncover the ingredients by asking for the MFSD sheet on the different tattoo inks.


Tattoo inks may be made from titanium dioxide, lead, chromium, nickel, iron oxides, ash, carbon black, and other ingredients. Some of the pigments are industrial grade and used as automobile paint. According to an Environmental Health News report, an ingredient found in black tattoo inks-benzo(a)pyrene-has caused skin cancer in animals. It also noted that tattoo inks have migrated into the lymph nodes, which play a significant role in immune system health.


Carrier ingredients may contain dangerous substances such as antifreeze, formaldehyde, methanol, denatured alcohols, and other aldehydes. Among the most popular pigments are those made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a type of heat-resistant plastic that is used to make luggage, pipe fittings, appliance parts, and, when ground down, tattoo inks. These inks are popular because they produce vivid colors. In fact, you can usually tell if an ink contains ABS because of the color.


You may pay a price for brilliant color, however, as people can experience allergic reactions to these plastic-based pigments. However, pigments that have a metal base also can cause allergic reactions. For example, you may react to the cobalt or copper in blue, the cadmium sulfite in yellow, or the mercury in red cinnabar.


An additional danger from tattoo inks concerns the desire to have a tattoo removed. If you want to eliminate a tattoo using a laser or ultraviolet light (the usual methods), the process may cause the release of toxic chemicals into your body, especially if the tattoo includes yellow #7 pigment.


Is a henna tattoo safer? Not really. If you want to choose a henna tattoo, you should ask about the ingredients. Those that contain para-phenylenediamine (PPD), as well as other toxic chemicals found in dyes, can cause delayed allergic reactions and hypopigmentation, scarring, and dying skin (skin necrosis). In addition, the use of henna may cause you to be permanently unable to tolerate sulfa drugs, sunscreens that contain PABA, benzocaine, and hair dyes.


Since companies are not required to reveal the ingredients in their tattoo inks and you are not protected against receiving a tattoo from unqualified individuals you need to take steps to ensure your safety if you want to have a tattoo. Therefore:


  • Ask to see the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each of the pigments or carriers to be used in your tattoo. These information sheets will tell you about the safety and basic health information on each substance.
  • Have skin tests performed on each of the inks to be used in your tattoo, even if the professional insists the inks are safe?
  • Insist on inks that generally have been shown to be safe. Therefore, look for carriers that include glycerine, ethanol, and purified water rather than toxic chemicals.
  • Avoid neon or vividly colored pigments, which are more likely to be toxic than other pigments.
  • Consider vegan tattoo inks. Numerous companies make pigments that are animal cruelty-free. You can check this list of vegan tattoo inks and ask for them by name.


The safest advice of all regarding tattoo inks? Don’t get a tattoo. If you have your heart set on getting one, do your homework and choose the safest tattoo inks available and licensed professionals.


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