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Ingredients in Modern Tattoo Ink

Gwen Wark

Tattoo ink is inserted beneath the skin during the tattoo process to create a lasting design. Inks are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, so it is important to know what is potentially in the ink before getting a tattoo.

Tattoo with colored inks

Allergic reactions to an ink or an ingredient can cause painful irritation and damage the art.

Blacks, Browns and Flesh Tones

Black ink is used extensively in tattooing and is sometimes used exclusively to create entire designs. The contents of this ink include iron oxide, carbon or logwood to produce rich, deep black tones. In certain states such as California, the use of heavy metals in tattoo inks has been outlawed, so iron oxide is being slowly excluded from use as a tattoo pigment.

Browns and flesh toned inks contain ochre, a compound made of ferric or iron oxides mixed with clay. The ochre is heated to remove moisture, giving it the rich brown color used in tattoo pigment.

Red, Oranges and Yellows

Red inks have long been associated with a phenomenon dubbed "red reaction," an allergic reaction to the agents used as pigment in these inks. Iron oxide (rust), cadmium red, cinnabar and napthol are all used as red tattoo pigment.

Orange tattoo ink ingredients include disazopyrazolone, disazodiarylide and cadmium seleno-sulfide. These pigments have good, stable structure and are known to be quite colorfast.

Yellow ink is made from chrome yellow, ochre, cadmium yellow, curcuma yellow or disazodiarylide. Curcuma yellow is derived from the spice turmeric.

Green, Blue and Violet Inks

Green tattoo ink has a number of potential ingredients, including Prussian Blue, malachite, chromium oxide, ferrocyanides or lead chromate.

Blue ink can contain any of the following ingredients: azure blue, cobalt blue, lapis lazuli or copper salts. Inks derived from the copper salts are approved by the FDA for use in other purposes such as baby furniture, contact lenses and toys.

Violet ink is sometimes photoreactive, which can cause a problem with tattoos that are exposed to light. Prolonged exposure can cause a violet tattoo to discolor or fade. Ink ingredients include manganese violet and quinacridone.

Other Considerations

The carrier used to contain the pigment has changed over the years. Modern tattoo ink commonly uses non-reactive substances such as witch hazel, pure distilled water, ethyl alcohol or glycerine as a suspension for the dye particles.

Performing a patch or line test 24 to 48 hours before beginning a tattoo is a common way to ferret out reactions to tattoo ink. Have your artist tattoo a small dot or line using the tattoo ink, then observe the area. If you experience abnormal blistering or pain, the ink may be unsuitable for you.