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The Role of Carbon Black Pigments in Tattooing.
Black pigment is the most used pigment in tattooing – a claim I make without any data but instead on intuition. Tattooers use black for everything – from outlines to realism, shading to solid fills- and the ubiquity of this amazing product is overshadowed by the fact that we know very little of its health effects when injected into the skin.
The color black, as we know it, is brought about by a material or chemical that absorbs all visible colors on the light spectrum. Black colors give the impression that there is “no light” being emitted or bounced off a surface – like our eyes can’t see it.
Carbon black is made by refining and combustion of petroleum products or burning things that have a high level of carbon inherit in them – i.e. plants or other natural sourced materials. The residue that is left over due to incomplete combustion is gathered up and and sold as carbon black to companies the world over.
This raw pigment is commonly used in:
- Commercial Paint/Pigment Production
- Refining Vehicle Tires
- Auto Parts Like Belts And Hoses
- Printer Toner
- Electronics Production
This pigment comes in many particulate sizes and are manipulated to increase “performance” – lightfastness, durability, conductivity, jetness.
Types of Carbon Black Historically.
- Ivory black was traditionally produced by charring ivory or animal bones.
- Vine black was traditionally produced by charring desiccated grape vines and stems.
- Lamp black was traditionally produced by collecting soot from oil lamps. This stuff used to be mixed with a carrier and was the foundation of what we call “Indian Ink”.
So why oh why do we put this into our tattoo pigments? Is it safe? What should we know so that we can be a better educated client/tattooer in the world? It all comes down to manufacture processes and how healthy these pigments are.
Carbon Black in our Tattoo Pigments.
Carbon black manufacturing is kind of complicated and, since this is a tattoo blog, we won’t get into what goes into the sourcing and processing. If you want to learn more, check the references at the end of the article. If you don’t want to do that then Google is your friend.
Carbon black is used in our tattoo pigments because its gives the illusion of depth and its small particle size makes it easy to saturate in the skin (with good technique, of course). This particle absorbs light wavelengths creating a full gradient complement to used colors in a tattoo. The refractive ability is determined by the particulate size and can be tailor made by manufacturers to most sizes… even nano-particle sized.
Carbon Black Health Concerns.
The manufacture of carbon black has raised concerns to researchers about its safety to the environment as well as how safe it is to use on/in humans and animals. Currently, carbon black pigment is set as a Group 2B (possible carcinogen) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) based on a couple studies done in animal inhalation models (they breathed in carbon black and got cancer). This is due to really nasty chemicals called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. (The link will take you to the CDC website describing these chemicals)
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)
These chemicals are a residue or byproduct of carbon black production. PAHs are traceable in things that burn – like cigarettes and garbage – as well as exhaust from automobiles. When they are inhaled and brought into our lungs they cause cancer.
There is loads of information out there about how PAHs affect our lungs and some alternative information from lobbying groups inside the carbon black industry who make claims that true carbon black is not carcinogenic. These same lobbyists claim that carbon black is actually true neutral to tissues and not able to react negatively on our health.
I believe the purest forms of carbon black to be something that is less than harmful to anyone who comes in contact with it (unless you are huffing the stuff), but the fact is that the cost of producing 97% pure carbon black is astronomically higher than the lower grade versions used in most pigments. If we use a product that is 20% pure carbon there is an 80% filler space that can be dangerous for our health.
PAHs damage DNA and exposure to PAHs can lead to tumors on lungs, bladder, and skin (topical applications). These same PAHs can also cause toxicities that can delay development and cause reproductive dysfunction. These chemicals attach to carbon black by binding tightly to the surface of carbon black and can only be removed with the use of solvents, which increases the total cost of production.
We don’t have any real evidence as to the safety of PAHs in tattooing but to err on the side of caution we should assume the worst until data is available. We are using products that contain the same toxins we find in automotive exhaust and that makes me cautious. It doesn’t take too much effort to put a thought in your head – this is something that we in the west have already had driven into our heads – pollution causes illness. Yet, in the face of this, we in the tattoo industry are chemicals into the client’s skin when we use black pigment without knowing how these compounds will affect health.
We need new studies and additional information about how PAH’s affect the health of a person if they are injected into the skin. If the same results occur, that we had seen in the lungs and eyes of studies previously, there needs to be a strategic meeting of producers to come up with a new formula that is safer to clients.
From a recent study – “These PAH molecules in tattoo inks might cause health problems not only in skin but also in any other organs in the human body that is reached by these transportation processes. Thus, we highly recommend pharmacological, toxicological and epidemiological studies to clarify the possible impact of tattooing on human health.”
Parvez, Faruque, et al. “Assessment of Arsenic and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) Exposures on Immune Function among Males in Bangladesh.” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 5, May 2019, pp. 1–15. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0216662.
Wheatley A, and Sadhra S. “Carcinogenic Risk Assessment for Emissions from Clinical Waste Incineration and Road Traffic.” International Journal of Environmental Health Research, vol. 20, no. 5, Oct. 2010, pp. 313–327. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09603121003663487.
International Carbon Black Association. Available online. July 14, 2014.
National Toxicology Program. Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Available online. July 18, 2014.
Lehner, Karin et al. “Black tattoos entail substantial uptake of genotoxicpolycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in human skin and regional lymph nodes.” PloS one vol. 9,3 e92787. 26 Mar. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092787