The safety of tattoo inks have always been a primary concern for most people considering tattoos and many professionals in the industry. In fact, no tattoo inks are regulated or certified by the FDA, and this raises some questions about how toxic inks are, or whether they contain heavy metals like lead and mercury. We dive into the safety of tattoo inks and what precautions will help ensure you don’t put your health at risk.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Related: Are Stick and Poke Tattoos Safe?
Regulation of Tattoo Inks is Long Overdue
Unfortunately, the tattoo ink industry has never been regulated by the FDA. They state that this is 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. The actual practice of tattooing is regulated by local jurisdictions.”
In fact, they emphasize that some pigments used in inks are, “not approved for skin contact at all. Some are industrial grade colors that are suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.”
Tattooing inks fall under local jurisdictions and often, unless tattoo inks are voluntarily recalled by companies, many fly under the radar. Tattooing is a business, and most companies don’t want to miss out on the profit gained from this business; this results in poor-quality tattoo pigments that contain heavy metals or chemicals that make them unsafe for human skin.
Until the FDA implements a standard that is nation-wide, nothing is preventing manufacturers from producing the pigments they wish under no regulation guidance. This differs greatly from Europe which has immensely strict tattoo pigment standards, making it hard for most colored pigments to be accepted for use in shops, as they more frequently contain concerning elements.
Tattoo Inks - What Exactly Do They Contain?
Most tattoo inks are made up of the pigment colorant and a soluble like water. Tattoo ink ingredients differ from brand-to-brand and some are composed of vegetable-based formulas while others could contain certain concerning additives.
Color pigments are more likely to contain metals and worrisome ingredients. Here are some you may find in certain tattoo pigment brands:
- Blue - cobalt, copper
- Green - chromium, lead, aluminum
- White - barium, zinc, lead, titanium
- Red - iron, cadmium, mercury
- Yellow - zinc, lead, cadmium
Scientific American states, “While red causes the most problems, most other colors of standard tattoo ink are also derived from heavy metals (including lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic) and can cause skin reactions in some people,” and that black may be the safest tattoo pigment to choose.
Does Tattoo Ink Have Metal In It?
Low-quality tattoo ink can contain heavy metals such as lead or mercury. These can affect your health in the following ways:
- Allergic reactions
- Tattoo healing complications
- Blood health issues
- Frequent itching
- Acute poisoning or toxicity
- Organ damage
- Long-term concerns for cancer
Learn more: Is Tattoo Ink Toxic?
Is There Anything You Can Do to Reduce the Risk?
Most reputable and professional shops will not compromise the work they do or the health of their clients and will have invested in high-quality inks that should present no concern to your health. But there are other steps you can take to reduce your risk of exposure to concerning pigments.
- Ask to see what tattoo inks your shop is using and read the ingredients list carefully. Here are a few of our favorite inks.
- Invest in your own tattoo ink that you’ve patch tested and ask your artist if you can bring it to the session.
- Check tattoo shops for licensing, certification, and ink safety procedures.
- Stick to black designs; rethink a design that has any color to minimize your risk since black is known to have the smallest chance of containing dangerous ingredients.
- Plan your tattoo on an overseas trip to Europe where the ink standards are higher!
Are Non-Toxic Tattoo Inks Available?
Absolutely! Most tattoo ink brands who do not use dangerous chemicals or metals will list “non-toxic” on their label and website. Most of our favorites are a sure-fire way to keep you and your health safe.
If a pigment lists “organic” or “vegan”, you can also ensure that your tattoo ink is vegetable-based which means it doesn’t contain any animal byproducts or harsh additives. Vegan inks are known to be less harmful than mineral-based inks.
You should always check the ingredients list of the pigments you intend to use and Google any words within the formula that raise a red flag for you. If your artist is using an unlabeled bottle, ask them to clarify what the contents are; they have to do so.
Our Final Thoughts
If you are really concerned about the toxicity or danger of heavy metals like lead and mercury in tattoo inks, your safest best would be to select an all-black design to minimize your risk, and to also speak directly to your tattoo artist about the brand of ink they use. Investing time into your own research about the ingredients or formulas of the tattoo pigments you’ll be using is essential to keeping yourself safe. Since the FDA does not regulate pigment, our skin health with tattooing is in our own hands.