Tattoo ink

Tattoo ink

Tattoo inks are pigments used in tattooing. Tattoo inks consist of a pigment and a carrier (see below).

Tattoo inks are available in a range of colours which can then be thinned or mixed together to produce other colours and shades. Most professional tattoo artists purchase inks pre-made (known as predispersed inks), while some tattooers mix their own using a dry pigment and a carrier. []

While manufacturers are not required to reveal their ingredients (and recipes may be proprietary), professional inks may be made from iron oxides (rust), metal salts, plastics or plant sources. Homemade or traditional tattoo inks may be made from pen ink, soot, dirt, blood, plant sources or other ingredients.

Whether purchased in bulk or custom mixed, to prevent the spread of pathogens inks should be placed in small disposable containers before use, and discarded after a single use. Fresh ink must be used on each client.

An ancient Roman recipe for tattoo ink, courtesy of the long deceased Roman physician Aetius []

1 lb. of Egyptian pine wood bark

2 ounces of corroded bronze, ground with vinegar

2 ounces of gall (insect egg deposits)

1 oz. of vitriol (iron sulphate)

Mix well and sift. Soak powder in 2 parts water and 1 part leek juice. Wash the skin to be tattooed with leek juice. Prick design with needles until blood is drawn. Rub in the ink.


Carriers keep the ink evenly mixed and free from pathogens, and aid application. Carriers include ethyl alcohol (ethanol), water, propylene glycol, and glycerine. Homemade inks may contain various toxins such as alcohols or anti-freeze.

Common pigments: composition and uses

* Blacks

Black inks are commonly made from powdered minerals and crystals, and amorphous carbon from combustion (soot). Besides tattoo ink, black pigment is commonly made into India ink. Blacks are frequently used for outlining, as well as for black-and-grey tattoos.

* Browns

Iron oxides and clay.

* Reds

Most commonly made from Naptha derivatives. Cinnabar and cadmium pigments are highly toxic and rarely used in tattoo inks.

* Oranges and Yellows

Monoazo and Diazo synthetic pigments. Also known as Monoarylide and Diarylide.

* Purple


* Blues and greens

Blue and green pigments are made from copper Pthyocalanine. Also known as Thalo blue and Thalo green.

* Whites

White pigment may be used alone, to dilute other pigments and create different shades and intensities of colour, to add highlights, or as a prelude to a cover-up. Commonly made from titanium oxides.

Other tattoo inks

Glow in the dark ink and blacklight ink

Both blacklight and glow in the dark inks have been used for tattooing. Glow in the dark ink absorbs and retains light, and then glows in darkened conditions; blacklight ink does not glow in the dark, but reacts with UV light producing a glow.

The safety of such inks for use on humans is widely debated in the tattoo community, and the results are variable.

The ingredients in Crazy Chameleon Blacklight ink (one brand of blacklight ink) are listed as: (PMMA) Polymethylmethacrylate 97.5% and microspheres of fluorescent dye 2.5% suspended in UV sterilized, distilled water. []

Black henna

Health Canada has advised against the use of "black henna" temporary tattoo ink which contains para-phenylenediamine (PPD), an ingredient in hair dyes. Black henna is normally applied externally in temporary Mehandi applications, rather than being inserted beneath the skin in a permanent tattoo.

Allergic reactions to PPD include rashes, contact dermatitis, itching, blisters, open sores, scarring and other potentially harmful effects. []


* [ Health Canada website]
* [ article on tattoo inks]

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