We sat down with tattoo artist Terrie Karam to learn more about tattoo ink and what you should know before you head to your tattoo appointment.
There are a lot of things to consider when getting a tattoo from the studio to the artist and design. But one thing many people might not have on their list is checking in with the type of ink used.
It's important to know about tattoo ink before getting a tattoo because it’s a key component of the tattooing process and can have a significant impact on the quality and appearance of the tattoo.
The ink is used to create the permanent design on the skin, and the type of ink and the way it is applied can affect the colour, vibrancy, and longevity of the tattoo. Certain ingredients in tattoo ink can cause allergic reactions or other skin irritation, so it's important to be aware of what is in the ink and how it may affect your skin.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What is tattoo ink made from?
Tattoo ink is usually made from one part pigment and one part carrier solution to create permanent tattoos on the skin. The ink is injected into the dermis layer of the skin using a tattoo needle. The ink can be made up of a variety of different ingredients that ensure the colour lasts in the skin over the years to come, including:
Pigments: The primary ingredient in tattoo ink is pigment, which is what gives the tattoo its colour. Pigments can be derived from a variety of sources, including vegetables, minerals (heavy metals), and synthetic materials.
Carrier agents: In order to properly disperse the pigment within the skin, tattoo ink also contains carrier agents. These agents help to suspend the pigment in the ink and make it easier to apply to the skin. Common carrier agents include water, glycerin, and alcohol.
Preservatives: Some tattoo inks may also contain preservatives to help prevent the growth of bacteria and other contaminants. These preservatives help to keep the ink fresh and prevent infections.
Stabilisers: Some inks may include stabilisers to help maintain the consistency of the ink and prevent it from separating or fading over time.
The specific ingredients in tattoo ink can vary from one brand to another, and some inks may contain additional ingredients or differ in their proportions to create their own proprietary blends.
Artists often have their favourites depending on what their style is and what they’re aiming to achieve.
Is tattoo ink regulated?
The United Kingdom has established regulations for the safety and quality of cosmetic products, including tattoo ink. These regulations are designed to ensure that tattoo ink products are safe to use and do not pose a risk to human health:
Tattoo ink products must be notified to the UK's Cosmetic Products Notification Portal (CPNP) before they can be placed on the market. The notification process includes providing information about the ingredients used in the ink, as well as any potential health risks associated with its use.
Specific requirements for the labelling of tattoo ink products. These requirements include information about the ingredients, precautions for use, and any warning statements that may be necessary.
According to the The Guardian, the European Union put a ban on certain substances used in tattoo inks in 2022 due to concerns about their potential health risks. These risks include cancer, reproductive problems, and skin irritation. This ban has caused some concern within the tattoo industry, with some people saying it could make it hard for tattoo artists to do their job and could harm the industry overall.
While the ban does not apply to the United Kingdom, the UK government is looking into whether it should put similar rules in place. They have asked the Health and Safety Executive to review the risks of certain substances in tattoo inks and see if any restrictions should be put in place. The Health and Safety Executive will decide on this in the spring of 2022 and will ask for public input before making a final decision. If they find that certain inks pose a risk to people's health, they may decide to ban them.
If you’re planning to get inked abroad, it is always a good idea to research the specific regulations in the country where you plan to get a tattoo, and to choose a tattoo artist who follows these regulations and uses high-quality, safe ink products.
What are the best tattoo inks to look for?
Urban Retreat’s tattoo artist in residence Terrie Karam is a big fan of using “vegan vegetable inks made from plant-derived ingredients” in her tattoos. And these days, vegan tattoo inks often have high-quality colour payoff and provide good results, even without the use of animal by-products to preserve the pigments. These inks don’t contain any animal-derived ingredients such as:
Glycerin derived from animal fat
Instead, they’re often made from:
Vegetable-based pigments such as beetroot, carrots, and spinach
Synthetic pigments such as iron oxide and titanium dioxide
Natural oils such as coconut oil, sunflower oil, and grapeseed oil
Plant-based gums and resins such as xanthan gum and acacia gum
Synthetic polymers, such as polyethylene glycol and polyvinyl alcohol
If you’re vegan, you might also want to look for a brand that doesn’t test on animals and is vegan-certified. More and more tattoo artists and studios offer vegan tattoo ink as an option for those who prefer it.
Her favourite vegan ink brand?
Solid Ink, made from a custom blend of natural pigments, distilled water, hamamelis (witch hazel) and vegetable glycerin, is one of the top brands she recommends. It’s vegan, cruelty-free and non-toxic and comes in a variety of vibrant colours.
Terrie specialises in fine-line tattoos and uses top-of-the-line vegan inks.
What inks to avoid
These are often made with a heat-resistant plastic found in appliances, luggage and pipes called Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) to intensify colour. The chemical ingredients can make this ink prone to reaction once in the body.
These are inks that are designed to respond to ultraviolet lights and give off a glow. They’re become more trendy lately, but often have chemical and potentially radioactive ingredients with unknown long-term effects.
Can I get an allergic reaction to tattoo ink?
Yes, it is possible to have an allergic reaction to tattoo ink. Some people may be allergic to one or more of the ingredients in the ink, while others may develop an allergic reaction over time.
Here are some possible causes of an allergic reaction to tattoo ink:
Allergic reaction to the pigment: Some people may be allergic to certain pigments used in tattoo ink, such as certain colors or types of dyes. This can cause an allergic reaction that presents as redness, itching, or swelling at the tattoo site.
Allergic reaction to the carrier agent: The carrier agent in tattoo ink is used to suspend the pigment and make it easier to apply to the skin. Some people may be allergic to one or more of the ingredients in the carrier agent, such as water, glycerin, or alcohol.
Allergic reaction to the preservatives: If the tattoo ink contains preservatives, it is possible for some people to have an allergic reaction to these ingredients. Preservatives are added to the ink to help prevent the growth of bacteria and other contaminants, but some people may be sensitive to these ingredients.
Allergic reaction to the stabilisers: Some tattoo inks may contain stabilisers to help maintain the consistency of the ink and prevent it from separating or fading over time. It is possible for some people to have an allergic reaction to these ingredients.
It's important to note that allergic reactions to tattoo ink are relatively rare, but they can occur. If you are considering getting a tattoo and have a history of allergies or sensitive skin, it may be a good idea to discuss this with your tattoo artist and potentially do a patch test with a small amount of ink before getting a larger tattoo.
If you've had a reaction to the ink, the best thing to do is to get it removed as soon as the tattoo is healed. We recommend using laser tattoo removal, specifically the LightSense™. It's the world’s most effective laser tattoo removal technology that doesn’t damage the skin, and it's only available at NAAMA. To learn more, request a callback with one of our experts here.
If you’re getting ready for a tattoo, here’s some things to keep in mind when it comes to tattoo ink:
- Tattoo ink stays for a long time in the body, so your best bet is to choose the cleanest option you can find. Non-toxic inks made from vegetables are a great option without sacrificing on colour payoff
- If you’re vegan, ask your studio and artist if they carry vegan-friendly inks ahead of your appointment
- If you have any known allergies, let your artist know ahead of your session to help rule out chances of a potential reaction to inks