Spend enough time online and you’ll discover all kinds of wild stories about tattoo ink ingredients. Tattoo pigment, as it’s more commonly referred to in the industry, is usually produced with a pretty simple formula. But what is tattoo ink made of? We spoke with Jesse Neese, a Nebraska-based tattoo artist and member of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, and Michi Shinohara, MD, associate professor of dermatology and dermatopathology at University of Washington, to find out.
“Tattoo pigment is made just like any other type of paint, with the exception that it needs to be non-toxic,” Neese explains, adding that it can’t be fat- or water-soluble, so the pigment stays in the skin. “So, you take all the things you could make in, say, a red paint for art [or] hobby stuff and you start to subtract options of what doesn’t work.”
In general, most pigments can be broken down into two components: the vehicle and, at the risk of sounding redundant, the pigment, or ingredient that adds color to the product. Of course, “every company has different proprietary mixes,” Neese says, meaning that the exact vehicles and pigments used will vary from brand to brand, almost in the same way a restaurant might have its own secret recipe.
Traditionally, blue pigments were made from cobalt, chromium, and copper salts, while green pigments mainly consisted of chromium and copper, Dr. Shinohara explains. Red inks actually used to contain mercury, she adds, but nowadays are made from cadmium and iron oxides. Neese notes that, more recently, some companies are starting to use newer plastic materials to add color to their pigments. And Dr. Shinohara points out that compounds often found in printer ink and car paint are being used as well, due to the intensity of their shades.
In terms of what can serve as the “vehicle” in a tattoo pigment, Neese says that water, witch hazel, or alcohol tend to be the most common choices, though certain companies may deviate from the norm.
For example, some manufacturers add glycerin to their pigments in order to create a thicker consistency in their products. On the flip side, other brands explicitly avoid using glycerin and other animal-derived products in order to cater to vegan tattoo enthusiasts. “Everyone tattoos differently,” Neese says, which in turn means there are different varieties of pigments out there to fit every artist’s style.
At the moment, the FDA classifies pigments as cosmetics. “Even though they are inserted into the body, they are not considered drugs or even medical devices,” says Dr. Shinohara. “Therefore, the FDA historically has not regulated tattoo inks.”
However, Neese believes it’s only a matter of time before federal regulations around pigment production are established. There are already some organizations, including the Association of Food and Drug Officials, that offer recommendations to manufacturers for safer, more standardized practices. Until then, he says it’s extremely important that studios and artists thoroughly vet their pigment manufacturers before buying their products. “Knock-off” brands, he says, are not as rare as you might think.
So, while there are certainly some crucial safety parameters that pigment manufacturers need to be aware of, Neese says that it’s by following a “simpler, the better,” rule of thumb that will serve brands (and artists) best.
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