The Chemistry of Tattoo Ink

Rubik's Cube Tattoo by Jef Palumbo. From: tat2guru.com/geek-tattoos-gallery-of-geek-tattoo-designs

Rubik’s Cube Tattoo by Jef Palumbo. From: tat2guru.com/geek-tattoos-gallery-of-geek-tattoo-designs

It seems these days you can’t go a block without seeing someone who has a tattoo. A 2012 Harris Interactive Poll reveals that 1 in 5 adults have tattoos, up from 14% in 2008. People are turning their bodies into canvases of artwork used to express their past, present, and future. When I went to get my first chemistry-related tattoo, I realized I didn’t know anything about the chemical composition of what I have been permanently putting in my body for four years. So, as any chemist would do, I did some research and found that, chemically, there is little known about the contents of most inks that artists are using. This troubled me, as I think it is important to understand exactly what the tattoo ink contains and what it could be doing to our bodies. The exact chemical components involved are not always explicitly stated, but what is available is a good foundation to a deeper understanding of tattoos, which in turn provides a deeper understanding of those who wear them.

Tattoo ink is composed of two components: the carrier and the pigment. The role of a carrier is to work as a suspension to keep the pigment evenly mixed and free from pathogens. Material safety data sheets (MSDSs) obtained from INTENZE inks, a popular tattoo ink retail company, show that their most common carriers consist of glycerin, water, isopropyl alcohol, and witch hazel. Either single use of one of these carriers or a mixture of similar carriers seems to be the common practice across most ink companies and artists.

Color

Chemical Composition

True Black

Acrylic Resin, Pigment Black (Carbon Black), Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel

High White

Acrylic Resin, Titanium Dioxide, Water

Red Cherry

Acrylic Resin, Pigment Red 210, Pigment Blue 15, Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel

Hard Orange

Acrylic Resin, Pigment Orange 13, Pigment Red 210, Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel

Bowery Yellow

Acrylic Resin, Pigment Yellow 65, Titanium Oxide

Dark Green

Acrylic Resin, Pigment Green, Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel

Baby Blue

Acrylic Resin, Titanium Dioxide, Pigment Blue 15, Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel

Deep Indigo

Acrylic Resin, Pigment Violet 1, Titanium Oxide, Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Alcohol, Witch Hazel

All information adapted from www.intenzetattooink.com/intenze-tattoo-ink-university/intenze-tattoo-ink-msds-sheets

The second part of tattoo ink is the pigment, essentially what is used for the color. Pigments come from a variety of different sources, including “mineral pigments, modern industrial organic pigments, a few vegetable-based pigments, and some plastic-based pigments”. The chart below shows common pigments along with their chemical structure. Pigments contain both organic and metallic elemental composition (in the form of copper in various oxidation states).

Pigment

Chemical Structure

Red 210

                                           red 210

Orange 13

           

Yellow 65

 

Green 7

            

Blue 15

     

Violet 1

    violet 1

It is important to realize that this is just one company’s product being discussed. Many companies do not feel the need to release this information because it is not regulated and [is?] regarded as proprietary. The FDA acknowledges the wide variety of inks but does not monitor the chemical consistencies. An FDA product information update states that “[m]ore than fifty different pigments and shades are in use … none [are] approved for injection into the skin”.The warning goes on to list the risks and problems involved in the process of tattooing, including, but not limited to, infection, granulomas, MRI complications, and, hardly surprising, dissatisfaction.

In the absence of federal regulation, some scientists have taken it into their own hands to find out what exactly is in certain inks. The American Medical Association released a study in 2001 from the Archives of Dermatology that investigated tattoo pigments and their chemical composition. Using quantitative electron X-ray microanalysis by energy-dispersive spectrometry, Timko et al. were able to determine the most abundant elements present in tattoo ink to be aluminum, oxygen, titanium, and carbon. The MSDSs obtained from the ink studied proved to be mostly accurate throughout the experiment; yet, there were elements reported in the MSDSs that were not shown to be present. It is possible that this is due to problems with the method of chemical analysis and more studies would have the possibility of shedding light on these discrepancies.1 However, it is reassuring to know these tests did not reveal any extreme inconsistencies.

Variety of inks used by Tyler Olson at Tattoo Galaxy

Variety of inks used by Tyler Olson at Tattoo Galaxy

As a customer, one does not have the privilege of picking and choosing the inks used by an artist. So, what does an artist have to say about the ink they use? In researching this topic, I had the opportunity to talk with Tyler Olson, an artist at Tattoo Galaxy, outside of Philadelphia. About the chemical composition of the different inks, Tyler stated, “It doesn’t come into play for me. Some inks are supposedly vegan, which does make me feel better about using them, but I’ve never confirmed those facts.” INTENZE, whose inks are broken down in the above tables, is one of the companies he often uses. As an artist, Tyler is “fully behind a push for tattoo ink regulation.” One way that he has started doing this himself is by keeping an eye on the strict rules and regulations in Europe. He says, “The inks that have been ‘cut-off’ across the pond, I won’t touch, they have been banned for a good reason.” This awareness of regulations in other countries may encourage the United States to follow suit.

The lack of regulation and transparency between ink providers and consumers does not seem to be affecting the increasing number of people that continue to get tattoos. However, I believe that the tattoo community would greatly benefit from FDA regulations to ensure that this continues to be a safe process. And of course, the careful consumer should only visit clean and reputable shops.

But even those most aware of the potential contents of tattoo inks, the scientists, express themselves through tattoos. A lack of regulation sure hasn’t stopped these passionate scientists:

“The best part is, only a biochemist (or someone with amino acid knowledge) will know what it says, so you can imagine some of the responses I get when people see this on my leg in public. And now I'll never forget my initials or the structures of arginine or lysine!” —Ryan Knihtila, second-year Ph.D. student at Northeastern University

“The best part is, only a biochemist (or someone with amino acid knowledge) will know what it says, so you can imagine some of the responses I get when people see this on my leg in public. And now I’ll never forget my initials or the structures of arginine or lysine!” —Ryan Knihtila, second-year Ph.D. student at Northeastern University

“I got my tattoo of a stylized DNA helix because I wanted something to commemorate and symbolize the importance of my family. At a basic biological level, DNA (genetic relatedness) is one way to define a family.”  —Bobby Hoult

“I got my tattoo of a stylized DNA helix because I wanted something to commemorate and symbolize the importance of my family. At a basic biological level, DNA (genetic relatedness) is one way to define a family.”
—Bobby Hoult

A graduate student in molecular biology at Princeton, who asks to be called simply MRL, wears the universe on his chest: “From the mathematical truths like the golden ratio (bottom right) to the quantum nature of life, and onward to carbon (bottom left), DNA (top right), glucose (top left), and the tree of life (center).” Originally published in: Zimmer, C. Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed; Sterling: New York, 2011. Image from: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/scientific-tales-come-alive-ink-6C10402888?franchiseSlug=sciencemain

And I count myself among scientists with tattoos! As an undergraduate, I could only dream of being published. When it finally happened, just a month before the end of senior year, I decided getting a tattoo of the compound I studied was the best way to celebrate.

And I count myself among scientists with tattoos! As an undergraduate, I could only dream of being published. When it finally happened, just a month before the end of senior year, I decided getting a tattoo of the compound I studied was the best way to celebrate.

Of course, this is merely a brief introduction. For more on science tattoos, check out the C&EN Newscripts on chemistry-based tattoos, as well as the undergrad who tattooed the ACS logo on his forearm. Chemistry has always enabled great art, and tattoos such as these show that this trend continues to this day.

Christine Dunne is a recent graduate from Northeastern University with a B.S. in chemistry.  In the fall she will be attending graduate school at Colorado State University - Fort Collins with a focus in organic chemistry. The world of tattooing continues to fascinate her as a form of expressive, personal artwork.

Christine Dunne is a recent graduate from Northeastern University with a B.S. in chemistry. In the fall she will be attending graduate school at Colorado State University – Fort Collins with a focus in organic chemistry. The world of tattooing continues to fascinate her as a form of expressive, personal artwork.

1Timko et al. “In Vitro Chemical Analysis of Tattoo Pigments.” Arch. Dermatol. 2001: 137.

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27 thoughts on “The Chemistry of Tattoo Ink

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  9. Thanks for your informative article. My dad lives in the Philippines and had his chest tattooed in a khalinga style tribal pattern. I wanted to get a tattoo pattern included in mine that would tie us together. I got two tattoos about a week apart while there visiting. I had no problems with the first one though done in a shack type structure on a beach that had reputable restaurants and shops. The second one was in the same tattoo shop that my dad got his done in by the same artist. This was done in Sunday. I left for home on Tuesday. After 2 days of flying, my feet and ankles had swelled up. I went to the ED rule out DVT. The tests were negative. A little redness around the areas that had been the most sensitive during the process but no fever, or extreme warmth. Equal distribution of edema. Friday morning I noticed a few little red spots around my tattoo. Friday night they had become pustule like. By Sunday there were between 10-15 all about 1-3 mm in size. I’ m allergic to Ethylene Diamine Dihydramine but can’t seem to find any information that this compound is in tattoo ink. The small pustules are very similar to the kind I developed and was diagnosed by a dermatologist re: EDD. I know if an ingredient is less than a certain percent it doesn’t have to be listed. Based on your findings, have you discovered EDD in any ink types? My dad’s going to get the ink info from the artist for me so I can provide it to Derm when I see them this week. Any help you can provide is greatly appreciated.

    • hi johanna! Im Jomatz Tolentino. im a tattoo artist here in the Philippines. May i ask did the ink that was used to tattoo you been tested by your derma? I would like to know what the brand is… i am doing a study of the bad ingredients in tattoo inks that are still present in them even when almost all inks are claiming to be organic.
      did the ink really caused the allergy? do you have pictures of the tattoo during the incident? can you decribe the place where your tattoo was done? and the name o the shop or artist if you can still remember? and where in the Philippines is the shop? hope my inquiries will not be bothering you and thanks for your time to reply.
      Jomatz Tolentino
      head artist @ Jomatz Ink Tattoo Studio

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  11. Thank you for your article! Very intersting read! Having found out what you did, do you worry about having the tattoos street the fact? Would you still get more tattoos? 🙂

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    • TOLERABLE PAIN OF PLEASURE! 🙂
      ponder on what you want.
      start small to just get the feel.
      have your tattoo done by a reputable artist… so you wont be wasting your pain, your money, and your skin!
      enjoy the pain coz once your tat is done.. so is the pain! … then you’ll miss it! 🙂
      If you are anywhere near the Philippines I’d be glad to be of service to you.
      🙂
      Ink wisely!

  13. Great paper. As a traditional artist I know the kind of poisons that go into my oils; lead for [the best] white, copper and cyanide-bases for greens and blues purple and rex, bromide in blue and thinners and even the pigments that aren’t heavy metals are lamp and bone black, essentially carbon, organic compound for browns and yellows….i could go on and on but believe I wouldn’t want these under my skin.

    By and large, other mediums like Acrylic and even water colors use exclusively synthetic pigment a which are safe for human consumption…or at least considered non-toxic

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