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What’s in This?: Tattoo Ink

For those who didn’t already know, tattoo inks are largely unregulated by the FDA

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or otherwise put it in your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum and potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert.

This edition: tattoo inks, which are made from mostly mystery ingredients, since they remain largely unregulated by the FDA:

Because of other competing public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety problems specifically associated with these pigments, FDA traditionally has not exercised regulatory authority for color additives on the pigments used in tattoo inks.

Making matters worse for those yearning to figure out what makes up the pin-up girl under their forearm skin, many manufacturers consider their recipes to be proprietary, which legally allows them to keep the ingredients they use under wraps. (If any tattoo ink manufacturers reading this are willing to share their ingredients, hit me up at ian.lecklitner@melindustries.com.)

This lack of regulation leaves both tattooers and those being tattooed largely in the dark. “I hate to say I’m ignorant about tattoo inks, but I think a large majority of tattooers are,” says Los Angeles-based tattooer Dillon Eaves.

None of this means the FDA won’t step in if they identify a safety problem associated with tattoo inks — they claim, for example, to have recalled contaminated inks from the market after receiving reports of infections in spring 2012.

The pigments used in tattoo inks are color additives, which are subject to premarket approval under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act — this is what allows the FDA to remove inks from the market if they contain ingredients known to be seriously unsafe. But as we’ve learned from the many ingredients we’ve explored in this column, the FDA won’t stop anything from hitting the shelves unless it presents an immediate issue to consumers. And since tattoo inks (and how they affect our bodies) remain a seriously understudied subject, the FDA currently doesn’t have any reason to crack down on them.

Keeping all of this in mind, we’ve listed (and analyzed) some of the ingredients we do know tend to be found in various tattoo inks below.

The Carriers

Tattoo inks consist of two main ingredients: A pigment and a carrier. The purpose of the carrier is to ensure the pigment is evenly distributed, to prevent clumping, to inhibit the growth of pathogens and to aid in application into the skin. These are some of the most commonly known carriers:

1) Ethanol: Ethanol is a form of alcohol used to help distribute ingredients evenly and enhances the skin’s ability to absorb said ingredients, making it a good carrier for pigments. According to the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, ethanol can be an irritant, which could explain why some people experience minor skin reactions directly after being tattooed.

2) Witch Hazel: This is an astringent compound (meaning it tends to shrink or constrict body tissues) produced from the leaves and bark of the North American witch-hazel shrub. Mild astringents like witch hazel are commonly used to relieve minor skin irritations, which is probably why it’s frequently used as a carrier.

3) Glycerine: As we learned in our exploration of the ingredients in Astroglide Strawberry-Flavored Lube, glycerin is what’s called a humectant. “Humectants are ingredients that are hygroscopic — that is, they absorb water and bind to skin,” explains Dr. Sharad P. Paul, a skin-care expert, skin-cancer surgeon and author of The Genetics of Health. That’s why glycerin is a common carrier: It holds the pigment firmly in place under the skin.

The Pigments

Here’s where things get hazy, because pigments are the part that many tattoo ink manufacturers consider to be their secret sauce. Still, there are some common pigments used in tattoo inks, which we’ve listed below. Keep in mind, though: Just about anything that can be used as a pigment (including harmful heavy metals, which we’ll touch on later) has been used at some point in the history of tattooing.

1) Carbon: Carbon (the chemical that largely makes up soot or coal) is commonly used to create black pigment. About 18 percent of the human body is made up of carbon, so having it injected via tattooing isn’t necessarily adding anything new to the mix.

2) Curcuma: Curcuma (aka turmeric) is derived from plants of the ginger family, and it’s often used to create yellow pigment. We know consuming curcuma orally has lots of benefits — including treating stomach ulcers, diabetes and bacterial and viral infections — but when it is injected into the skin via tattooing… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

3) Copper Salts: Copper salts are what impart blue or green colors to minerals like azurite and malachite, which is why they’re frequently used to create blue and green pigments. To help you gauge the dangers (or lack thereof) of copper salts, they have FDA approval for use in infant furniture and toys, as well as contact lenses.

4) Iron Oxide: Iron oxide, commonly known as rust, is used to make red pigments (which are generally thought of as the most troublesome pigments). In addition to often causing allergic reactions during tattooing, iron oxide is thought to be the culprit behind the burns some tattooed people experience during MRIs.

The Takeaway

As we mentioned, not enough research has been done to fully understand how these carriers and pigments affect the body via tattooing. On top of that, there’s seemingly no end to which ingredients have been used to create pigments, many of which are known to be mutagens, carcinogens, teratogens and toxins — cinnabar, cadmium, lead, antimony, beryllium, nickel and arsenic chief among them.

So while many tattoo ink manufacturers — like Fusion Tattoo Ink — claim to have moved away from primarily mineral-based pigments to more organic ones, it’s tough to know what short-term and long-term effects these pigments (mineral-based or not) may have on our bodies, which is why it’s always a good idea to talk to your tattooer before they get to work.