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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

What's In Your Tattoo Ink?

By February 19, 2008

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If you have a tattoo, do you know what is in your ink? Unless you made the ink yourself, the answer to that question is no. Would your tattoo artist know what was in the ink? Again, probably not. Tattoo ink manufacturers are not required to reveal their ingredients. Even when the ingredients are listed, the 'recipe' is proprietary, so you won't know the proportion of one ingredient to another. Sources of those ingredients may change, too, so your safety may be in the hands of suppliers not intending their product be used in the human body.

Does that mean tattoo inks are unsafe? No. A reputable tattoo professional will know which inks have a good safety track record and which ones have caused reactions. Basically, everyone who had a tattoo before you was a human test subject for the ink. This also implies you have a certain level of responsibility to report any reactions you may have to a tattoo. This not only protects your health, but helps ensure the safety of other people who will get tattoos.

Personally, I think tattoo inks should be subject to the same overview as drugs, but that hasn't happened, so I've collected information on the pigments used in inks, the chemicals used as carriers, and other safety issues associated with tattoo inks. About.com's Guide to Tattoos, Karen Hudson, has additional resources regarding tattoo safety. You can use these resources to formulate questions to ask your tattoo artist before getting a new tattoo and to help recognize potentially dangerous reactions.

I get e-mail from people who think their tattoo might have caused a reaction, but aren't sure. Here's an example:

Hello Dr. Helmenstine,

My name is Debbie Capes. I was rather surprised to find out that there are so many detrimental elements in tattoo ink. Is this present in the majority of tattoo inks or only those by certain suppliers? The reason this caught my interest is that I just got a large tattoo with blacks, reds, greens, and yellows in it and around 2-3 weeks later I noticed that I had Mees lines on my finger nails. Do you think this is even plausible? I am not worried about this, but if there are enough heavy metals in inks to cause this, there could be health effects in those with even bigger tattoos than mine. It would be interesting to take some hair samples from those with larger tattoos to look for these metals. If this is real, the FDA really needs to get on the ball.

Thanks for the article,

Thanks for writing, Debbie. At the present time, it's very difficult to tell whether or not a medical symptom is related to a tattoo because it's practically impossible to pinpoint a causative agent in a tattoo (that would require knowing what is in the inks). Hair samples can reveal whether a person has been exposed to a particular heavy metal, but it's hard to track down the source of the contamination. Professionally-formulated inks tend to be much safer than inks prepared by tattoo do-it-yourself types, especially those using pen ink or dirt as a pigment (please don't). Soot can be a very safe pigment (carbon black), but keep in mind the source of the soot is important. The residues from burning some plants contain toxic chemicals. Soot from animal sources is probably about as safe as pigment gets.

Make Tattoo Ink | MRI Reaction with Tattoo
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November 4, 2009 at 10:26 pm
(1) Jesse Boren says:

The EU does regulate tattoo ink and there are serveral brands made in England and Australia that are made without toxic elements. They are also sterile which is unheard of in the US. They are very expensive though. Dermaglow and Classic are two sold in the US. Have you evaluated them?

November 17, 2012 at 10:20 am
(2) Tim says:

I just got a large tattoo done w black dynamic tattoo ink. I had a very bad reaction from it. My Doctor said it was a metal poisoning. My whole tattoo swelled up huge, and there were itchy bumps all around and on my tattoo! I wanted to blame the artist until I done more research on the dynamic ink that was used in my tattoo. I also got physically sick as well. I was throwing up and diarria. I also ran a high fever. I would do research on the ink used if I EVER get a tattoo again. I will not use Dynamic Ink again.

March 19, 2013 at 4:11 pm
(3) Andy says:

I just got a tattoo and the ink used was Dynamic and also had a bad reaction to the ink I did talk with the tattoo shop and let them know and see the reaction on both arms .
The reaction was almost right away and by the next morning was already looking bad with a blister looking bumps that look like burns.
I had the tattoos done in Mexico in saying that the shop was very clean and professional.
I will be looking into the ink for my next year when I return to have some more work done.
I hope that anyone that reads this will have done some home work and a better time with there ink work.
I should add that I have many other tattoos with no problems


April 11, 2014 at 10:39 am
(4) david says:

Lots of fake dynamic ink made in china coming thru CA causing reactions. there faking everyone pigment selling it cheap. BEWARE

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