Tattoo Ink – chemistry behind the beauty of the colors

Ever since I started sharing with my friends the idea of getting tattoo, I have heard a lot of different things about the ink – that it is carcinogen, that it can trigger different allergies, that it contains hazardous materials. Few days Facebook offered me to read an article about vegan tattoo inks and somehow it made me thinking what the ink is made at all. Tattoos has been around for centuries and pigments used has changed a lot through the years. From charcoal, grinded dry clay, vinegar and a lot of other to the modern inks that contains pigments and a number of other substances.

The interesting part is that in US it is not mandatory for tattoo ink manufacturers to provide complete list of the ink ingredients.  Also as far as I could find there is no special legislation in Europe on what can and cannot be used in the tattoo inks. Below you can read some of the findings of my research.

Modern tattoo ink consist of dry matter in the form of one or more pigments that are crystals or grains in the size of 20-900 nanometer and of a liquid carrier fluid. In addition, they consist of various additives such as preservatives and viscosity creating substances.

Carrier is used to keep the pigment evenly mixed in the fluid matrix, to protect the ink against pathogens and to aid application on the skin. It can be a mixture of different fluids or a single substance. Most of the mixtures contains one or more of the components below:

  • purified water
  • glycerine
  • ethyl alcohol
  • propylene glycol
  • Witch Hazel
  • acrylic resin

Some of the ink mixtures can contain denatured/methyl/methanol/rubbing alcohols,  ethylene glycol, formaldehyde and gluteraldehyde where each of these is more or less toxic.

When an alcohol is used as part of the carrier base in tattoo ink or to disinfect the skin before application of the tattoo, it increases the skin’s permeability, helping to transport more chemicals into the bloodstream.

Witch Hazel extracts are mainly used externally on sores, bruises, and swelling. Also used in skin care, it is a strong anti-oxidant and astringent


Modern pigments used in the tattoo ink are coming from various different sources – mineral pigments, vegetable pigments, modern industrial organic pigments and some plastic based pigments.

Some inks are made to react on black light and their pigment contains even more risky elements.

Most frequently, the pigments are coloured because of their crystal or grain structure. If they are broken down to chemical molecules they become colourless and if they are metabolised in the skin, e.g. under the influence of light, the tattoo will fade.

Below is a table that describes most commonly used pigments in the tattoo inks.

Compostion of Tattoo Pigments
 Black Iron Oxide (Fe3O4)Iron Oxide (FeO)CarbonLogwood Natural black pigment is made from magnetite
crystals, powdered jet, wustite, bone black,and amorphous carbon
from combustion (soot). Black pigment is commonly made into India ink.
Logwood is a heartwood extract from Haematoxylon
, found in Central America and the West Indies.
 Brown Ochre Ochre is composed of iron (ferric) oxides mixed with clay.
Raw ochre is yellowish. When dehydrated through heating, ochre changes to a reddish color.
 Red Cinnabar (HgS)Cadmium Red (CdSe)Iron Oxide (Fe2O3)Napthol-AS pigment Iron oxide is also known as common rust. Cinnabar and cadmium pigments are highly toxic. Napthol reds are synthesized from Naptha. Fewer reactions have been reported with naphthol red than the other pigments, but all reds carry risks of allergic or other reactions.
 Orange disazodiarylide and/or disazopyrazolonecadmium
The organics are formed from the condensation of 2 monoazo pigment molecules. They are large molecules with good thermal stability and colorfastness.
 Flesh Ochres (iron oxides mixed with clay)
 Yellow Cadmium Yellow (CdS, CdZnS)OchresCurcuma YellowChrome Yellow (PbCrO4, often mixed
with PbS)
Curcuma is derived from plants of the ginger
family; aka tumeric or curcurmin. Reactions are commonly associated with yellow pigments, in part because more pigment is needed to achieve a bright color.
 Green Chromium Oxide (Cr2O3), called Casalis Green or Anadomis GreenMalachite [Cu2(CO3)(OH)2]Ferrocyanides and FerricyanidesLead chromateMonoazo pigmentCu/Al phthalocyanine

Cu phthalocyanine

The greens often include admixtures, such as potassium
ferrocyanide (yellow or red) and ferric ferrocyanide (Prussian Blue)
 Blue Azure BlueCobalt BlueCu-phthalocyanine Blue pigments from minerals include copper (II)
carbonate (azurite), sodium aluminum silicate (lapis lazuli), calcium copper silicate (Egyptian Blue), other cobalt aluminum oxides and chromium oxides. The safest blues and greens are copper salts, such as copper pthalocyanine. Copper pthalocyanine pigments have FDA approval for use in infant furniture and toys and contact lenses. The copper-based pigments are considerably safer or more stable than cobalt or ultramarine pigments.
 Violet Manganese Violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)Various aluminum saltsQuinacridoneDioxazine/carbazole Some of the purples, especially the bright magentas, are photoreactive and lose their color after prolonged exposure to light. Dioxazine and carbazole result in the most stable purple pigments.
 White Lead White (Lead Carbonate)Titanium dioxide (TiO2)Barium Sulfate (BaSO4)Zinc Oxide Some white pigments are derived from anatase or rutile. White pigment may be used alone or to dilute the intensity of other pigments. Titanium oxides are one of the least reactive white pigments.


Most of the ink manufactured today contains both pigments and carriers but there are some vendors that provides pigments only and tattoo artists using it has their own carriers and ways to get the ink ready for application.

It was just a very brief introduction on what is in the ink. If you are curious you can always check the sites of the leading vendors and I am sure that you will get a lot more information on ink contents.

This article is not aiming to scare you but it is aiming to be informational and to make you think when you are choosing tattoo artist because tattoo artists has the experience and can advice you in case you have a health safety questions or any other questions related to this. Also you should consider getting a bit more information upfront in case you already have some allergies that may cause complications. Going to have a tattoo done by someone using cheap products in their apartments is the thing that you should be considering.

At the end nothing matters but the beauty hidden in the colors of tattoos.