How Safe Are Tattoo Pigments – An Analysis On The Tattoo Pigment Industry And What Needs To Change.

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From the beginning, this article seemed like a simple way to introduce an argument about safety and fair practices. In reality, the companies that sell tattoo pigments, the industry that produces the raw ingredients, and the tattoo artists combined led me to formulate a critique that became an issue much larger than I anticipated.

This article grew to around 10,000 words and is only still just scratching the surface of a debate that needs to occur.

Questions about the industry and its operations keep stacking up in my mind. I have spent countless hours trying to make assumptions about why actions have been taken, who is to blame, and what can be done to improve the industry as a whole. After studying what was occurring and talking to insiders who manufacture pigments in the US. I slowly formed an opinion of what was happening to the industry and wanted to write this to get my thoughts onto “paper” so I can check back in as time passes and see how my thoughts, beliefs, and interests change.

In writing this article, I spent hours of research, sent hundreds of emails, and traveled to try and create a framework for what I hoped could be accomplished by releasing any information obtained. This article attempts to find the answers I knew were out there.

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Part 1 – My Opinion and analysis of the tattoo pigment industry

Currently, two sides are debating the future of pigment production in the tattoo industry. On the one hand, the suppliers and distributors of the products tattoo artists use are confronted with questions about how safe their products are. They are faced with the potential of regulations handed down by governments that focus on the health and long-term effects of products used in tattooing.

The suppliers and producers are actively fighting these potential new regulations. They argue that self-regulation has been successful, and there is no need for any new laws concerning rules or regulations. Suppliers and distributors claim to have the client’s best-health outcomes as their primary focus. They argue that government regulators should stay out of private business as self-imposed regulations and self-governance are the best course of action for any involved.

On the other hand, questions are being presented by scientific researchers and regulators across the globe. These questions are centered on the safety and efficacy of products being sold or used during procedures. All of the testing being done has the eventual fact of leading the powers that be to pass some regulations in the face of public safety – once enough data has been collected about the health effects of products commonly used – in this case, tattoo products.

To date, researchers who have been testing the safety of products released for tattooing have come up with many questions after initial rounds of testing. The results of this first-round testing show that suppliers and distributors have released products that have been produced with known harmful chemicals and contain materials that may pose health risks to consumers. While it is yet unknown if there is prior knowledge or malice attached to the production of these products, researchers are working tirelessly to ensure more about how tattoo pigment affects individuals’ health. These are the same products that we see line the shelves globally.

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As the industry evolves, the testing efforts by scientists are progressing slowly. They have been delayed due to the lack of regulations (which are used as a guidepost when choosing what to test for) and a need for new testing protocols. This is the reason for this article – how can we know what is safe, how can we judge the safety of a product once it is released and what are companies doing to sway our opinion of what is safe versus what is not.

The Health of The Public

For the past 20 years or so, companies producing new products for the market have been able to innovate. These “evolved” products have been pushed into public use without the regular testing for safety, even if we assume testing is a part of their development. The innovations in pigment chemistry brought about more dynamic products for use in the industry, but we know little of their long-term health effects. Until recently, science was not interested in how products were being developed. People were happy with the results, and no immediate health consequences were popping up to alert regulators there may be a problem.

This reactionary aspect of health consciousness is slowly evolving into the past, and testing is now focused on a healthy future for a large population of the planet. Products that are developed with the mindset of profits over safety are coming under scrutiny far more often, especially when large populations of the public may be at risk. One issue with the explosion in innovation is that scientists are constantly playing catch up and are almost always in an underfunded environment, so testing new products takes longer than it could.

While new products are continually being developed, producers and distributors take in massive profits while the gap in scientific testing becomes more evident. New additives and ways of manufacturing change the landscape for the products tattoo artists use. While this happens, scientists could be testing products that may have already had their mixture modified. They may also be testing products that are not in circulation anymore.

When testing products, this gap in available knowledge has presented itself as needing innovation. The effort by scientists to describe and apply safety labels are required, apart from the money-making efforts of suppliers, distributors, and other companies involved in the influence of tattooing.

The efforts of researchers and regulators globally have only just started focusing on developing new ways to analyze and inspect products used in tattooing. As science takes place, researchers can better determine what makes up newly released products. Once they can identify what is in these products, they can start identifying whether or not they are safe. 

One downfall to the process in the United States is:

Researchers cannot look for what is not listed on the label, especially when regulations are absent. There is also zero regulation about how products are marketed, leading to problematic ethics when supplying an industry.

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Ethics and Supply – How Suppliers Mislead the Industry

Questions About Quality and Safety – Labels

For the most part, tattoo artists worldwide believe in the safety and efficacy of products made by large supply companies. These supply companies have spent millions on marketing and endorsement deals to instill a sense of quality and safety for those who use choose their brands. Marketing the idea of quality is a wonderful idea, mainly when quality is meant to describe safety. The concept of quality to supply companies is not meant to represent a level of security. It is intended to denote a level of effectiveness.

When consumers think of quality, various images pop into their minds: Clean, safe, costly, effective… While this is not a complete list of product descriptors, the labels listed above (and many others) are being applied to the tattoo products currently in circulation.

When using these labels, each word applied to a product has a unique meaning that holds a value independent of its core value. It is something a person can visualize, hold in their hand and look back at with some form of emotional content that makes the product unique in the eyes of the beholder.

When using multiple descriptive labels together, the visualization a person receives is more defined and evokes a more significant emotional response. By using such labels, marketing agencies, social influencers, and companies alike can develop a widely accepted brand. This image can precede the product by holding the company name aloft as a reference to the images and labels espousing quality used before.


This image applied to a brand comes to be known as something more than a simple product line – a sneaker or some therapeutic face wash – the brand becomes the emotional aspect that we as a population have chosen to accept as something that is more significant, greater than, what we compare to the other things that are comparable in life. We are trained by companies to want, regardless of the quality, efficacy or value of a product. Society can be swayed easily to accept something or to turn away from it. All this is possible with the use of language, pretty pictures and the guarantee of something that is far beyond what is being offered.

If manipulation of our simple language structure creates different interpretations when applied to a product, we are faced with an ultimatum of sorts – these products must live up to the interpretations we have assumed when we encounter them. This also holds true when newly developed products are released to the public.

Knowing that we cannot trust our instincts, as they are given to us through a company image or marketing campaign, it is essential, when the safety of an individual who is undergoing a permanent modification to their body is reliant on a product, that every product actually delivers what it promises. Sadly, most products released do not live up to the hype they are presented with, or to how they are described.

Here is a thought experiment to make what was stated above a little easier to absorb:.

Thought Experiment 1

Patients require “quality” healthcare when undergoing surgery. In this sense, “quality” embodies the feeling of safety. We know that a quality physician is able and well educated. They can take care of us when we are at our most vulnerable state. They’re above the average and have an intrinsic level of value that is almost ethereal when spoken about in public.

Compare that to a quality cut of meat; when we compare the use of quality to a food product, we expect it to be of substantial size, color, nutritional value and taste. It has little to do with the safety of such an item. We want our money’s worth and the “quality” label is a guarantee that we are receiving such an item.

While this initial identifying label can be applied to a unique object or person adding additional labels helps the public better understand how much more value can be placed on things when confronting new products or things that are similar in nature.

Thought Experiment 2

What happens if we attach a second descriptor like organic or grass-fed to a product that we already assume is quality?

When combining organic, grass-fed and quality together, those viewing or hearing these labels are given a different understanding of what “quality” means. These additional labels add a multiplicative effect to the interpretations of what is being presented.

To most of us viewing these labels, the product we are confronted with feels safer, cleaner and more responsible. It may seem funny to think that words can carry such weight and that the use of language can influence our decisions. This goes with most products that are marketed to us and is no different when looking at tattoo pigments available to tattoo artists globally.

The ethics of labeling things responsibly falls on the producers of any and all products. Regardless of how they may be sold, the literacy of the populace has been, and will continue to be lacking, when confronted with language that is intuited. True understanding comes when the labels being used are properly understood.

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Ethical Labelling and Sales

While products for tattooing may be listed as having quality ingredients (effective), they are also listed as organic, vegan and cruelty free. This manipulation of product labels falsely applies the sense of being honest, safe and responsible to a product that has been knowingly manufactured with only efficacy in mind. To make this case even more evident we need to ask ourselves – What is safe, what is vegan and what does cruelty free mean?

Labels are created to inform the population and throughout history our species has thrived being able to classify things in a way that encouraged survival. The efforts of modern marketing have taken this evolutionary aspect of our species and flipped it. The focus of labels has been shifted to mark something with a greater value than it actually has.

This false sense of security is a blatant violation of trust by suppliers. Combine that with the efforts to resist regulation and sell untested, potentially unsafe products under the veil of what they supposedly embody does not align with what the tattoo industry currently needs. The false identity of products denies the average artist the possibility to critically compare products. This identity creates a system where artists believe they are buying things that will improve their ability, increase their value and expand their influence.

This practice must stop, or be modified to ensure education about product efficacy and safety. The efforts of supplies must focus on how the products are presented as well as how well they are understood by consumers.

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Quality and the Labels Surrounding the Art of Tattooing

Cultural acceptance has led to a renewed renaissance in applying a tattoo artistically. This new era of tattooing has given tattoo artists the ability to claim the title of being accomplished early in their career. The reality is, they have yet to learn enough to be considered a master, regardless of how well they market their ability.

Mastery is a difficult thing to accomplish when a person wholly focuses on a single aspect of their field. Mastery demands a full knowledge of all aspects in a field of study. Beyond that, the person attempting the achievement of mastery must understand their place in the craft and how they are forced to be a part of it’s evolution.

While this glaring hole becomes more evident as time passes, companies who supply the next generation of artists are forced to adapt in tandem, or face the wild winds of change and suffer losses financially. In a way, they are forced to succumb to the labels that have been developed to compete with new companies offering the “next big thing”. In essence, they are forced to adapt or die.

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My worry is that the application of specific labels to these businesses and the products they release have created a strawman in the industry. Because this may already be a problem, the future must force an adaptation or see the strawman increase in perceived relevance.

The deficiency that is slowly evolving in the industry, specifically in the areas of mastery, mirrors what the pigment and supply companies face as the threat of new regulations puts them under scrutiny. These companies may be exposed as the inexperienced professional who is being represented as a master.

Their labels may come under the lens of a more educated populace if the work is put in now. In doing so, these companies may be found out to know far less they claim. Their efforts to supply an industry with less than safe products, labeled as the new liquid gold, will fail under scrutiny. These businesses may also force their own hand when placed under examination about their practices. When this happens they must provide exceptional proof to justify the use of these false labels and their efforts must be in earnest. If they are unable to produce such proof they must admit that their efforts have been falsely applied to sell more products.

The break in knowledge

When speaking to those who are still alive and remember the glory days of tattooing (old-schoolers), modern practitioners are confronted with a history rich in platitudes, something that combines the ways and beliefs of the old with that which has occurred in such little time. The old timers have had a difficult time evolving and the future, to these relics of the quickly evolving history, is wildly unbelievable. (As an aside, I must state that their opinions, whether good or bad, are usually worth listening to.) These long standing veterans come from a time where mastery was a viable option and the critique they have offer should not be ignored.

Check out our article on the Evolution of Tattooing by clicking here

The labels attached to products and artists were a well-earned aspect of the evolution within a timeless tradition. If you were wise enough to earn the label of master, you deserved that label. In the past, most labels were applied this way. If a product was called superior, you could trust its efficacy.

As the industry evolves away from the past, where self sufficiency was a normal and one could obtain mastery, practiced aspect of business and the labels applied to artists and products must make sense. This is because more reliance is placed upon the suppliers and distributors as knowledge of how to make any product relevant to operations are lost. It is up to them to release products that are safe and effective.

They are forced to earn the labels they chose to self apply to increase sales.

Next, we will look at science, labels and how an industry fell away from itself.

tattoo leg
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How Industry Demand Influences Labels

With scientific innovation at the forefront of product development most tattooists are blessed with unbelievable color lines and new products that break from the clumsy production of the past. Throughout history new products were developed and tattoo artists trusted their release without question.

Regardless of labeling, new products were trusted because tattoo artists weren’t given a choice; because without these products, tattoo artists couldn’t do their jobs. As new products were released competitors were forced to develop something comparable to keep the sources of revenue they had established.

When new products weren’t available, or if rebranding of previously developed products wasn’t possible, new labels were applied to existing supplies to increase visibility to those that fell prey to newly established competition. These labels forced things of lesser value to the forefront of an evolving industry and were designed to grab the attention of all who sought to fill a shelf.

While this practice became more normalized, tattoo artists were held hostage as knowledge was slowly stripped away them. The knowledge of simple procedures from the industry became trade secrets and were held closely by the few who made a profit reselling old ideas.

As consolidation of knowledge takes place we are led to believe the future lies in innovation, not in mastery. When it comes to pigments, most artists had never learned about their manufacturing or mixing. Past that, they never knew questions could be asked to suppliers, like:

Are the pigments I use everyday safe?


What was responsible or what harm could come if they continued to use these untested products?

This overlooked aspect of operations created an imbalance, as trust in the producers outweighed the need for critical inquiry. Modern tattoo artists never understood they could make a product of greater quality if they were willing to put in the labor. Pigments and other supplies became foreign and mystical – like some form of technology. Through clever marketing, they were led to believe mastery could come from the utilization of modern products and media sources.

Ethics or Profits

Some (it may be a majority, I am unsure) tattoo artists do not know how to make pigment, build a needle or tune a tattoo machine. In more modern tattoo business operations, local distributors were essential once mastery shifted focus towards art. When this happened, at least to me, they knowingly capitalized on it.

While most suppliers or distributors may have started their business in an altruistic way, the money available inside sales globally has become obscene. This newly found growth in profits forced individuals to choose between ethical sales practices and potential fortunes.

Competition with these companies was the excuse to bend morality, as they had to evolve to take advantage of new markets. Whenever new growth opportunities present themselves in business, companies are forced to change their practices, cut costs and innovate to stay viable. They must produce products that could be labelled as unique, better and faster to stay ahead of their clientele’s demand. In creating innovation, companies are allowed a sense of freedom, if the products delivered increase total utility for those that utilize them.

Pigment companies have had nearly 2 decades of freedom. That freedom has created innovation and helped establish some companies as being at the forefront of product development. These new labels bring additional stress to continue innovation and there have been… well… problems.
Due to these “problems”, the European Union (EU) has started investigating the operations of pigment suppliers and distributors. They have also begun testing their products.

In the U.S., regulators have presented suppliers with a chance to change classifications on products used in tattooing. The idea is to reclassify tattoo pigments as a cosmetic supply. If regulators are successful in doing so, a list of banned substances will be given to producers that will no longer be allowed in the production, manufacture and mixing of pigments. This has brought pigment companies forward in an effort to stop regulations.

snake hand tattoo
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An industry that lost control

Most tattoo artists are trained in infectious controls, safe operations; yet, they are unable to explain what is potentially one of the greatest threats to their clientele – what is put into their skin. As tattooing evolved, the industry shifted its focus towards art and left the manufacture of products they utilize daily to suppliers. With the help of marketing and brand management, tattoo artists began to see these companies as a more trusted name in the field. The suppliers gained control of a product that was essential in the operations of tattooing.

Currently, operating a tattoo shop forces owners to apply old-fashioned business management tactics to an evolving field. Mainly, these areas of focus are on growing artistically as an individual (if they tattoo), increasing visibility among those inside and outside the market, and maximizing profits.
Shops split total revenues with artists (percentile basis) and, with the influx of clientele recently, have made a business model that requires little effort to grow. All you require is decent work being produced and a mildly acceptable level of customer service. This model was adapted from previous generations and has not evolved much in the past 30 years. What has happened is society accepted tattoos as a form of expression. When that occurred, tattoo artists globally were forced to make accommodations with their time or adapt to new products that allowed them freedom.

Tattoo artists no longer make needles (which really was horrible), or mix pigments (which was so, so messy); there are now suppliers who are willing to sell to professionals. What they sold to artists has been considered quality items, and they were available for a low cost in comparison with time saved. This adaptation was a necessity for many people who had established themselves before modern supply companies had the selections they do currently.

In the past, tattoo artists were forced to spend twice as much time (compared to actual tattooing time) or more making the tools to be used for daily operations. When clientele increased, the total time for preparing the shop increased. Tattoo artists were desperate for an escape and were given it as the market adapted to meet these demands.

man holding tattoo machine


There is a core group of suppliers who maintain a sort of oligopoly over products released to the industry globally. This existence at the top of a market, with little competition, occurred as the tattoo shops globally demanded fast access to products necessary for operations. As the demand increased, and these businesses grew to support a global economy, distributors developed the local footprint needed to get the products to wanting artists.

In the modern market, connections between suppliers and distributors are codependent. There is no need for interpersonal connections with local artists and the suppliers; something that had been common practice in the past. With the development of the distributor as a middleman, suppliers were capable of keeping things intimate with their local clientele while growing to fit an expanding market. Their focus shifted to train distributors in their product benefits and sales tactics for new and existing clientele.

This practice continued until the suppliers elevated beyond the normal levels of competition to become a supplier of something essential. They became brands, recognized by their logos and labels, and controlled the flow of all products globally. Tattooers stopped making pigments and handed control over to the overlords who gladly took control of their daily business.

top secret
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These products have little regulations inside the US, but do have regulations in other parts of the world. My worry, and it seems to be the worry of scientists across the globe, is that some of the products being manufactured may be unstable or unsafe.

In the past, we had more control over what we chose to utilize in our tattooing practices. We knew the people who sourced our pigment or we sourced them ourselves. When something went wrong, if a person got sick, the blame rested on our business. This operation seems more ideal to me. It’s like farm-to-table and more personal. This opinion may be sentimental and lacking a global ideology but, our work is personal. If we were in control of our products and developed them in tandem with people who source them, we could have better control over the quality of the products we choose to use on our clientele.
This idea should not be relegated to just the pigment producing/mixing companies that sell to artists in the industry, but to all who choose to sell products that have the potential to cause undue harm to unwitting populations.

My efforts in this article may seem to unfairly point to the people who choose to make pigments, but I only utilize this argument as I feel they have the easiest route to ensure quality production and the release of safer products.

My opinion is that suppliers have a greater responsibility to inform the industry, distributors and clientele as to what their practices are; what they are giving us to put into our bodies. Hiding behind the guise of “proprietary blends” is not a way to ensure trust, especially if that blend is potentially harmful to its recipients. We need open dialogue wherein all parties can freely discuss the safety and efficacy of the products they choose to use.

safety gear

The Fight Against Regulations

Currently, distributors are facing new critique. They are facing the threat of new regulations and outside analysis of their products. In response to this, tattoo pigment producers have been quick to run to the industry for support. It almost seems like an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment, where these companies are gathering the “troops” to fight an offensive ruling party. These troops are artists and any outside regulator is treated like a sympathizer to the crown during the revolutionary war.

What I have an issue with is the “troops”. Most, if all, are not scientists, nor educated individuals who offer an objective view on the situation. These “troops” are considered experts and trotted in front of regulators to give an opinion about what is best for clientele. The opinions given are mostly centered on artistic benefit or some libertarian ideology. While I do enjoy the idea of responsible self critiques, these “troops” have a natural bias attached to their efforts.

While the previous paragraph may be centered on the “troops”, pigment producing companies are the ones that have brought them forward to speak on their behalf, and on behalf of the population at large. They offer up paid employees or sponsored artists to speak as experts.

This is akin to the efforts of cigarette companies when confronted with regulations and national exposure of possible health effects for using their products. These sponsored artists and employees may be masters of their field inside art or tattooing, but they are not scientists or doctors. There is no way for them to tell regulators what is best for the health of clients.
The tattoo industry needs to come out of the dark and focus on objective opinions. They need to stop the fight about who is right, or who can tell us what to do. Tattooing is not a shadow of the past reborn to give it to “the man”. The historical antisocial, misfit labels are no longer applicable. Moving forward, tattooists should be asking questions like:

“How will these products affect the clientele and the industry?” Or, on a more personal level, “Am I doing my best to ensure the level of education I have is adequate to make informed decisions about my business operations and my client’s safety?”

What questions I had regarding pigment safety

Through the efforts of my research I ran into questions that were mostly philosophical in nature. While some in society look to the humanities with distrust or apply ignorant labels, I feel happy to find a ground footing in slowly developing a thesis and testing it before making any assumption.
A simple list of questions started my journey:

    • Why is so much effort being put forth by these companies to combat criticism in the face of public safety?
  • Are we supposed to follow the giants of industry when they have so much to gain from us following them blindly?
  • What choices do we have in the products that are a necessary part of our jobs?

Ideally, I wanted to have an answer to this question:

What is safe and what is dangerous?

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The Tattoo Industry Currently 

According to online sources, the tattoo industry is currently valued at nearly 3-billion-dollars/year in the U.S. There are reportedly nearly 20,000 tattoo parlors open and in operation in the U.S. as of 2018. 

If each one of those tattoo parlors has 1 to 3 people working inside of it, we could assume that there are nearly 45000 active tattoo artists at legitimate, licensed shops, within the United States. I have no idea how many people are working privately as a licensed shop or not in the US alone but I imagine these numbers would add many thousand to the total assumed.

All tattoo artists, professional, licensed or otherwise, are mostly forced to purchase pigments and tattooing supplies from a select number of companies that either distribute or produce them, directly or indirectly.

There has been murmurings that the safety issues we see result from suppliers who refuse to take the stance of  “for professionals only”. This idea seems logically inept and possess the power of secluding products that would otherwise be available in an open market. I believe this strategy (making the products exclusive), places a barrier between our understanding of how safe products are.

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If tattoo suppliers removed the ability of researchers to purchase something on demand, these products would be less easily obtained for testing and give suppliers easy ways to obfuscate products. If a product is “leaked” onto the market, meaning it wasn’t sold through an approved seller, suppliers are given a way to shift blame. This practice works against the assumption that regulations, when utilized in a responsible and proactive way, increase the value of products and lead to an increased profitability.

To clarify a point made above – I am not making the assumption that all fake goods on the market are released by the companies that produce them. I could argue that some are but there is no way to accurately depict the operations of all businesses globally. I only bring this up because, utilizing a profit maximizing model, it would make sense to recoup lost expenses for unsold goods by releasing them to 3rd party distributors that purchase them for a discounted rate.

You will decrease losses and waste by offering discounted products on an open, unregulated market. Look at “dollar stores” in the U.S. as a successful representation of this practice.

To continue with these logical failures I see, selling to “professionals only” will not result in safer products. By removing a product from open scrutiny, you remove the ability of educated people providing feedback as to how to improve a product. You also lose a large market that can report unsafe consequences from outside industry use.

Short term revenue gains do not offset ethical responsibility. Sadly, when given the choice to make profit or operate ethically, tattoo suppliers and distributors have shown us time and again that they prefer to make a profit. 

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How Artists Make Choices

Tattoo artists in the U.S. are without relevant critiques or examination by scientists for the products they use on the job. For tattoo product sales in the U.S. it is not essential to have passed any testing that ensures the safety and efficacy. The only testing, is a trial by fire. Trial by fire, as in: we put our clients in the fire and see what happens.

This trial by fire with safety is of serious concern to scientists, especially those from countries with socialized medicine. In countries where the government picks up the bill for health care, they focus not only on immediate care but also what will affect a population in the future.

Practicing ethical thinking is of benefit to society. When businesses focus on safety before innovation, public health is taken into consideration before profits. This argument seems logical to most consumers but is derided among businesses as they claim it slows innovation. I agree that there must be a balance but, if ethics supersede the focus on profits, business and clientele can coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial.

On the consumer side of products, especially when dealing with a product that has heath consequences that are unknown, we require the ability to research and choose what is right without succumbing to influences from marketing, or recommendations from less than educated individuals. This is even more important when faced with sourcing goods that impact others health.

Herein occurs another question: Is it wise for consumers to base choices on advertising materials or personal recommendations when they are apart from scientific evidence?

We have become entrenched in the recommendations of our digital devices. Google tells us the best things to buy. Whatever places high in the search results has an intrinsic value and, regardless of how much proof can be given, reviews are bought and sold to elevate product listings.

We have written an article about labels, the value of social media and how mass media influences your choices. It can be found here – How the Tattoo Shop Became God

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Lifting the veil

In earlier times, society rarely acts with hesitation when introduced to new products but, not everything in technicolor was taken as gospel. Some in society took the time to critically analyze new ideas and products and waited a while until a a trusted confidant bought something and offered a verbal critique. If we were convinced a purchase held some utility, we ventured out and bought one ourselves.

Since the dawn of modern advertising, companies have focused much effort in developing techniques to make their products stand apart from their competition. Currently, there is a marketing machine pushing supposed high-quality products by showcasing the best in an industry, or people of fame,  vouching for their products. Suppliers worldwide utilize product endorsements as a way to boost sales and product recognition. While we see this as a pervasive method of marketing globally, the slogans and imagery attached to products emanate a sense of elitism into the tattoo industry. Examples of such statements are:

  • “**** Ink Supports Quality Artists”
  • “**** Ink. For Tattoo Professionals Only”
  • “**** Ink. The ORIGINAL Grey Wash”
  • “By Professionals for Professionals”

Normally, these slogans are attached to visual media with a well known artist. Some of these artists receive forms of funding from the brand they support. They are considered “sponsored artists” who receive products for use (either for a reduced fee or free of charge) so long as they push these products to fans. While this practice is not illegal, the products safety is tied to the artists who represent it.

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False representation

When work is displayed with a well known name attached to it, the product becomes humanized and appeals to the masses by shifting the focus from the product’s efficacy and safety to the person’s skill who recommends it. This misleading attempt to create brand recognition hides the fact that through manipulation of an industry, where no alternatives for sourcing products exist,  a lack of concern for the people who utilize them is expressed by the companies who produce these campaigns..

If you take the time to go to a tattoo shop, a convention, or walk into a supply shop, you will see such advertisements emblazoning the walls. Inside the industry, it is the product that makes the professional, not the skill of the artist alone. Artist inside tattooing are led to believe there are no alternatives. To be the best, you must use a single product.

Beyond sponsorships, the review process of a product has not been vetted for publishing on a website, regardless of what verifications process they claim to use. By seeing a star value, consumers are given a sense of security that the product they are purchasing is of a specific quality, not that it is safe. If artists venture past the faceless application of reviews and sponsorship they are left with few ways to receive confirmation of a product’s safety or efficacy. More often than not, artists turn to each other for validation of a product’s abilities.

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The Choices We Make

If there is a need to find something new, how are artists going to make a decision? 

Tattoo artists are in a difficult position when it comes to choosing which supplies to use. Most product use is wholly subjective and is viewed as an extension of the person who uses it. The application of art is an extension of their person as is the interpretation of those who view it. Because these aspects of creation are so personal, those who face a choice that may impact the ability they have in creating something useful are easily influenced by those who they feel know more, are better at or have greater social value than themselves.

Most of the time, an artist will see something that they determine as quality; they see a happy client and they choose to use the same product that produced those results. This all boils down to something so simple: Artists want happy clientele. This helps them build their business and extend their influence. 

But, what about future repercussions if the products being used are not safe? There may be an ethical subtext to everything that is being done inside the tattoo industry, especially when tattoo pigments may not be safe. This is an existential crisis for many people.

Those who chose to tattoo and call it their life’s passion or calling must make a decision to learn more about the products that they use. The industry needs to move forward regardless how negatively the knowledge may impact the industry.

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Choosing your supplies and offering critiques

New and established artists alike are unable to make decisions based on empirical evidence when choosing a company to source their products from. Instead of having proof that something works well and is safe, they are left with recommendations from the media, professional sponsorship or their trusted, fellow artists.

What we are unaware of, when asking our fellow industry insiders, is if they have any proof as to how safe or how well a product works. Their recommendation is purely subjective, and if we decide to use their recommendation when purchasing a new product, we are left feeling awkward if we do not agree with them after using it. 

By creating a system that places the subjective experience above scientific evidence, we preload bias into our choices. One one hand, we can express our negative experience by telling our coworkers, fellow artists locally, or the sponsored artists who recommend these products as the best quality, that we disagree with their critique of a product. In some cases this may result in a friendly discussion about how or why we came to this result, but the industry has shifted away from the idea of craftsmanship towards artistic ability.

If the person choosing to speak up does not have the same skill set, or social media influence; or if they are judged by the populations inside tattooing to be lesser an artist, or not as “good” as the people they are questioning, it is easy to dismiss their claims. The adoring fans or close friends to the person who is placed in a position of defending their recommendation, will defend the product by defending the person. The focus of any discussion is shifted and made personal. If a person makes an attack on a product, you make an attack on all of the professionals who support it.

With all the burden of proof being placed on artistic skill, and the quickly devolving possibility of critique, how can a person stand a chance in expressing their opinion? 

To start, we need to understand that our fellow artists are not basing their claims on scientific evidence. Those who rush to the defense and shift the focus on a product to a person have no value in the discussion. It is a smoke screen and I imagine that this same tactic will take place when scrutiny falls upon these companies to provide proof their products are safe.

Experience or proof

We know as a population that experience is not a valid identifier of quality. These two terms are mutually exclusive. Problems arise when artists are quick to pick up the latest, trendy item. This includes whatever has been elevated to prominence by those they idolize.

Let me be clear: I do not have any issue with the purchase of items that are supported by industry giants. I only want those products to be verified as safe by scientists who are better trained at identifying potential dangers.

The Manufacture and Sale

Tattoo pigments are just paint for your skin… right?

Tattoo pigments are a product that is readily available in supply stores or via online marketplaces globally. They are a necessity for tattoo artist operations. Most pigments sold commercially are labelled as “vegan” or  “sterile” and come in a variety of mind-boggling colors. The chain of production is easily followed for companies who release products on a global level:

Manufacturers globally produce the raw materials used in mixing tattoo pigments. These manufacturers sell raw materials to the companies that mix and bottle pigments that are then sold to distributors. These distributors sell tattoo artists the bottles via online marketplaces or local supply shops. The companies that “mix” tattoo colors are not the same people you meet at conventions or in local supply shops.

Please remember, suppliers do not produce raw pigments, but only purchase them from large companies who do the production in bulk for all industries globally. The final product is distilled down through many channels until you purchase a bottle from an endpoint.

Suppliers in the tattoo industry buy raw pigments from these manufacturers, blend them with whatever they use to make the pigments. This is where regulators have begun their analysis into the safety of production.  In the US currently, there is zero regulation for tattoo pigments and cosmetic tattoo pigments. There is no law requiring companies to verify what is put into the bottles they sell. There is no in-house testing or out of house testing of the raw products before the mixing process starts. This is the same for the products that are lining your shelves/drawers right now. The only testing is completed before the product is initially released to the public, in which companies that do testing check to make sure the labels and ingredients match. There is no testing to ensure safety.

Once a product has passed the initial acceptance by the FDA (in the U.S.), companies can begin selling their product. After this initial inspection, companies can make changes to pigment mixes without additional approval. What has been shown by researchers recently is that what has been listed on the label of bottles of tattoo pigment is not all that is in a bottle.

Historically, the onus has been on distributors to release safe and effective products while the suppliers have evaded scrutiny. They (suppliers) have been trusted implicitly and, we assume, have lived up to their responsibilities. With unfettered freedom, these companies have gone forward mixing and selling pigments, as well as other supplies, while avoiding any outside critique or question as to how safe the product is. Tattooing as an industry has operated under the assumption that everything they use is considered safe because there have been no reports openly released stating otherwise. 

And as we stated before – There are no enforceable regulations on tattoo pigments in the US currently.


Reactions to Regulations of Tattoo Pigments

While writing this up, I drafted a tactical road map in the back of my mind. This road map was what to expect of the industry as time progressed when facing regulations. I go into scattered detail throughout the article about how I feel the companies in question will react to questions or possible regulations. They have a head start though – The tactics of companies in the past who faced the threat of regulations have laid a track in which they know how to progress and confront regulation. These companies will do everything to preserve profits and will focus their efforts around the stalling the potential intervention in product development by scientists. 

Think about the cigarette companies and their efforts throughout modern history to get people addicted, keep them addicted and how they focused on maximizing their profits while people died from the use of them. Like I wrote above, there is a process to this active engagement of profits over health. This process was developed by intelligent people well before legislation and regulation came down on companies who threatened the lives and health outcomes of the public. And, just like the cigarette companies during the 1950’s and 1960’s, tattoo pigment distributors are working against regulation and we know they are following this process to a “T”. 

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Tactics to Keep Us “Addicted”.

We are subject to the efforts of mass marketing. There is no way to refute that the companies who sell us products know what they are doing. Through modern times, from radio to the modern social media landscape, advertising and marketing companies have spent vast fortunes in studying the effects of their efforts so as to influence our decisions. This influence peddling has been well described in many newspaper articles, peer-reviewed scientific journals and by those outside the media who have suffered health consequences from these actions.

What’s funny about the whole process of influencing our decisions is that the companies who are facing future regulations know about the potential intervention by the government long before they are facing a change to production. These companies are prepared for potential losses and have a timeline that focuses their fight against regulation. This process is really easy to come up with and, if you think about it, the fight against regulation starts with understanding the political process and how regulations come down the line.

It always starts with a complaint.

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Deny, Deny, Deny…Never Back Down.

Sounds like a Roger Stone interview, right?

All regulations start with an initial complaint. Someone gets sick, dies or suffers in some way that is directly linked with whatever product may be responsible. A note gets made in some logbook, on some persons desk where regulations get done. If it is an isolated event, the note stays alongside the other complaints that may not have culminated in something of consequence to the general public. However, if the complaint is followed by others making the same claim, regulators are forced to focus efforts on understanding what is causing all the ruckus. 

Because the push for regulations have already hit other industries, tattoo suppliers, distributors and manufacturers of pigment are in a unique position to exploit knowledge gained by others who have gone through the process before. The previous actions taken by other companies or industries give companies facing new regulation a way to prepare for a fight against regulation. 

The Start of Regulation

Let’s start the process with step 1 in regulation – Finding the cause.

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Once enough complaints get made to regulators, and a pattern is emerging as to what may be causing the issue, an effort is made to contact the companies who may be responsible for the outbreak.

Historically, companies facing this step in the process deny everything. With the denial well established, a false effort will be made by the company to “find out as much as they can”. Remember, the company is well aware of what is going on and has already developed a plan for what is going to occur if people start complaining (or dying). 

During this stage of inquiry, denial is the only action a company can take. Knowing that governments require evidence and data to formulate regulations, and that the general public will not be educated as to what the health consequences are with their products, the companies facing the regulation easily stay in denial. They do this because they know regulators must build a case against the companies at fault and the development of evidence can, at times, take decades. During this period of pre-regulation, companies work a 3 pronged approach to delay the inevitable:

  1. Litigation to stall the collection of evidence.
  2. Engage in political influence.
  3. Influencing Public Opinion

Collect Evidence and Creating Contradiction

Onto step two in regulations – Evidence collection.

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Regulators have the upper hand for the initiation of evidence collection. The truth is already out there and health consequences have been observed and reported to authorities. Companies confronted with this aspect of regulation are already in denial mode but denial can only go so far when fighting governmental influence that will be based on hard evidence. The companies in question need to develop stories, alternative “facts” and questions about the intentions of regulators so that they can influence the general public’s opinion and slow the progress of investigators.

Litigation and Stalling 

To start, companies apply proprietary brand labels to products, hiding the ingredient lists from regulators under the guise that losing the special ingredients is comparable to loss of intellectual property. This stalling tactic can take years to undo and allows for the development of increased product awareness that is manufactured by the companies that are under fire.

Companies will also start pulling in competitors so that the cost of litigation and evidence collections are spread about. Having a single company on the hook for millions or billions of dollars may signal the end of a dynasty so, when working together, companies can ensure survival when facing possible fines in the future.

Those facing regulation will also fund scientific efforts to prove that products are safe. By purchasing the science that is being reported to the public, disinformation runs rampant and efforts by regulators are slowed as they are forced to defend their publications before introducing the results to legislators. Companies using this practice are almost guaranteed a delay in any proceedings as long as they can continually produce new work that forces a rebuttal by government regulators. 

The Coalition for Tattoo Safety (CTS) is a perfect example of how the pigment industry has combined its efforts behind a single organization. You can also see them attending briefings and legislative sessions in Washington DC starting in 2018. The head of the CTS has also created a cell-on-chip testing facility in the recent past to test the safety of his and the coalitions’ products – all this in an effort to produce results that can be presented to governmental regulators.

Public Opinion

While the branded products can now be hidden from scrutiny by the general public (by denying the examination of what is listed as proprietary), efforts are made to create grassroot followings based on the safety and efficacy of a product. These campaigns are focused on gathering the forces of the least educated individual. By giving these people a famous face and free products the companies are able to sway opinion in specific demographics which instills a level of doubt that can be hard to shake for regulators in the future.

Companies may also develop philanthropic efforts and give to causes that attach a more “human” face to the company. All this while causing damage to public health. When creating the focus of philanthropy, companies must be sure to focus on health aspects or social causes that are inline with what they are being confronted with. If a pigment company is being brought under regulations because of possible carcinogens being released in their products they will focus on fighting cancer – to show you they care.

Pigment manufacturers have focused on increasing sponsorship over the past 5 years. These sponsored artists are not scientists but attest to the efficacy and safety of a product while receiving kickbacks for adulterated work that is spread across social media channels globally. These efforts are alongside media campaigns that have increased brand awareness by offering free product demos, funding media like podcasts and magazines as well as forming a coalition for the general public and industry insiders (the CTS).

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Political Influence

When the public believes something, they have power. By creating a situation where the masses believe something, companies have effectively cut the government off at its knees. The voting public is all that matters to those who have been elected to office. Their reelections, campaign funding and possible media coverage are of utmost importance if they choose to make a career in public service. Because the public holds so much power over politics their beliefs become the politician’s own when confronting regulations. 

Public opinion can sway the beliefs of officials, which in turn decreases their ability to see the truth when confronted with scientific evidence. This can be attached to the guarantees from companies that unlimited cashflow for reelection is at their disposal if they are willing and able to slow the progress on potential regulation. I know that this may seem like some crazy alternative idea but if you look back into political landscapes throughout history you can find a multitude of examples where “back scratching” occurs at all levels of government.

The whole focus of grassroot campaigns is to create doubt. By doing this, companies are able to force a sense of disbelief when the public is confronted with real evidence that may be damaging to the companies facing regulation. If people do not know what to believe, they will follow with their heart and experience before accepting fancy science-speak. When this happens, product lifespan in its current formulation is increased and no efforts by the company to change in response to the coming health crisis are required. The products still hold value even if they are unsafe.

Time for Regulation

Once enough data has been collected, and the evidence that is brought forth by companies, which is largely anecdotal by nature, is refuted or falsified, regulators can move forward with proceedings to challenge companies and attempt to prove malicious intent behind their efforts to evade regulation.

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Historically, companies would argue that they were being victimised.  Regulators were treating theses companies different than their competitors, AKA- singling them out.These companies argued that regulators attacked their ability to operate by imposing regulations which forced them to lose market viability; the the loss of profits during restructuring to meet these legal hurdles was impossible to overcome; non-scientists argued on behalf of these companies that regulations stood between them and the products that they demanded.  Companies facing regulation argued that any actions taken by regulators moving forward were effectively decreasing the ability to innovate and to meet market demand.

While I agree that this may be a possible side effect of regulation, this argument pushes business interests and earnings ahead of public safety. If you knowingly produce a product that has been shown to create ill health in individuals, you have a responsibility to modify your products or remove them from circulation. In my opinion, the guarantee that new products are safe supersedes the want for innovation.

Once Regulation is Passed

Once an agreement is struck between regulators and the companies that were under scrutiny over the safety of their products, a timeline is established for the company to remove unwanted or unhealthy aspects of products being released to consumers. Depending on the severity of the risk established by scientists this timeline can be quite abrupt – immediately.

There is also the possibility of damages being assigned in the way of a fine to the companies who are held responsible for the consequences

During this phase of regulation, companies have the chance to fight on and appeal any aspect of regulation that has been passed. By filing an appeal to the regulators companies can force a halt on any adaptations and increase the amount of time needed to adapt and change their products. Each company can also decrease the amount regulations by appealing to each individual aspect of the rulings that were handed down. This process can also stall the regulators for decades in the enforcement of new laws.

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Moving Into Modern Regulatory Actions With Tattoo Pigments

I keep asking myself: Why are they fighting to keep regulations from becoming a reality and why should they care if they are forced to change?

I believe it comes down to money. This makes more sense when looking at businesses fighting regulation in the past – it always has been about money.

What companies are up against when facing regulation

New regulations create new processes that must be taken by companies when they release products for the general public.

If you change your production or are forced to utilize new sources or raw materials, your costs will initially go up. There will be a period of time where you cannot produce any product and your profits will evaporate. Depending on the market you operate within, these costs of operation may stay increased for the future which puts stress on your product line to stay competitive, if you choose not to raise prices. Due to this, manufacturers argue that increased costs create a market in which they are unable to successfully operate in. Business thrives on stability.

Regardless of what a company may say is going to happen to their production costs, the price adjustments and lifetime value fall onto the consumer. If companies are forced to pay more to adapt new policies or produce things in an ethical way, they do not pick up the bill, regardless of what they say. We have been shown throughout time that these new costs always pass along to the consumer and have no bearing in successful sales. Businesses that do not make profits are prone to failure.

Up next we will be discussing the science behind tattoo pigment and the health consequences associated with the different products used in their mixtures. The scientists focusing on these health consequences have only just started to release their findings and you may be amazed at what they have already found.

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Pigment Solutions

To understand why we need regulations, we first need to understand what is in pigments, how those ingredients interact with the body, and how these interactions may be harmful to us.

Tattoo pigments – Historically

Tattoo pigments have been around for thousands of years. The earliest known substances used in tattooing were ash and charcoal that were injected in the skin via crude tools by early humans. The inorganic materials left over from combustion of organic matter were easily applied to a person’s skin and were readily available once fire had become ubiquitous in early human civilization.

This practice of using inorganic solids continues, and in more modern times, (up until the last 20 years or so) pigments have been mainly made up from mineral sources. We have a large body of experience that shows what to expect when using these pigments and how to deal with potential reactions, when they occur.

Most of these historic tattoo pigments were comprised of a carrier and some of the following inorganic mineral sources:

  • Reds were sourced from cinnabar which is a mercury sulfide compound that shows red when hit with light.
  • Cadmium compounds were used to create the warm tones (reds, yellows and oranges).
  • Chromium and cobalt bases were used to make greens and blues.
  • Aluminum bases were used to make violets and greens
  • Iron oxide and carbon black were used to create black pigments.

Modern colors that are commercially available for tattoo artists are made up mostly of synthetic-organic pigments but there is still widespread use of some inorganic pigments, mainly whites (TiO2) and blacks (Carbon or Lamp Blacks).

Reactions are more likely to occur with inorganic pigments and the assumption is that the newer, synthetic-organic pigments are a safe, less reactive alternative in tattooing.

Whether this is hypothesis is factual or not has yet to be observed.

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What is in tattoo pigments 

Like the pigments of historical significance, modern tattoo pigments are mainly comprised of a pigment and a carrier solution. The raw pigments ingredients are manufactured by large companies and sold to smaller suppliers who mix and bottle the solutions.

Here is a video by How It’s Made that describes the process of making inorganic pigments.

To add clarification to the term pigment; it is often interchangeable with descriptions like dyes, colors and inks. While we may use these terms colloquially, they stand for different things.

What Makes Up Tattoo Pigments

Tattoo artists are picky about what you call their liquid injectables – Ink and pigment have been used interchangeably for a long time but, let’s set the record straight as to what these products really are.

A tattoo pigment is made up of raw pigment solids that are dispersed into a liquid carrier. Here is more detail about how we choose to identify what makes up our the products we use:

Dyes or Pigments – The Difference is in Their Composition

Dyes- Dyes are either a synthetic or natural substances that are dissolved in a liquid carrier. Like pigments, a dye is a substance that is added to something to change its color. These are substances retain their color properties when reduced to individual molecules. The term is often used when altering the color of an article in which dyes or pigments are added.

Pigments- Pigments are organic or inorganic substances that are insoluble in a liquid carrier. Some dyes can be precipitated to create pigments (lake pigments). Pigments can also be, in a biological sense, colored molecules found in a cell, regardless of it’s solubility.

Pigments work by absorbing wavelengths of light and bouncing whatever isn’t absorbed off their surface. This results in only specific wavelengths to be seen, wherein your eye absorbs these light waves. What is absorbed doesn’t reach your eye.

This is why pigments look different under different light sources. The type of light that hits the pigments will carry with it a specific section of the spectrum – If you look at a red or orange under a warm colored halogen light it will carry a certain hue, but under natural sunlight, it will look totally different. 

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Raw, inorganic tattoo pigments are insoluble. This means that they are unable to be blended with a liquid (such as water). To blend the colors we use in tattooing, pigments are mixed with a solution called a carrier fluid.

Carrier fluids ensure the pigment’s ability to be transferred directly into the skin once picked up by dipping a needle and tube into an ink cap. By utilizing carrier fluids and surfactants (which is described in a section below), a mixture is able to be transferred to the skin in the correct ratios that ensure a quality process.

Carrier fluids are made up of inactive ingredients that act as vehicles for substances. Without the carrier, our pigments would be a dry powder which could not be injected into the skin unless we got really messy and started mixing dry powders with blood and exudate.

Types of Carriers

Most modern tattoo pigment carriers are comprised of some, or all, listed here: Distilled water, glycerin, alcohol, ethyl alcohol, witch hazel, Listerine and/or glycerol.

Let’s look at each of these carriers and see how they work:

  • Distilled Water – Distilled water is water that has been boiled and collected on a distillation surface. The process of distillation removes impurities and infectious agents that could cause harm, if the resulting purified is mixed with tattoo pigments.
  • Glycerin – A colorless, odorless liquid that is used to thicken tattoo pigments. Glycerin is able to mix completely with water and change the properties of the mixture.
  • Alcohol – Also known as ethanol, alcohol is used as an antiseptic and antifungal additive to tattoo pigment solutions. Use of alcohol can increase the shelf life of pigments and decrease the possibility of contamination.
  • Witch hazel – Used as an astringent, witch hazel is added to tattoo pigments in an effort to lessen the irritant effect of certain preparations. It has a cooling effect when applied to the skin but can also reduce “skinning” that occurs on the surface of a pigment solution if left exposed to the air. Little evidence exists showing witch hazel having any health benefits
  • Listerine – Used as an antiseptic, Listerine was originally formulated as a surgical antiseptic and floor cleaner. This is added to pigment preparations to increase shelf life and as an antimicrobial agent. The fragrances and cooling features of this product can be irritating to some people’s skin.
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There are also known additives used in some pigment carriers currently. Some of the known additives include surfactants (detergents, binding agents, fillers and preservatives). These additives are utilized to give the product used by tattoo artists, a specific feel, consistency and ease of use.

Tattooing is all about feeling and intuiting what is going on. If things don’t feel good, you won’t to keep using it. Due to this very personal expression when using tattoo inks, mixers/chemists will add various surfactants to change the viscosity of the pigment.

The role of viscosity and tattoo pigments

Viscosity is how thick stuff is and how easily it is manipulated by force. This definition is kind of simplified but, think of Ketchup – it is a viscous liquid that has unique properties when being dispensed from a bottle. This may not seem like something that matters to tattooing, but think about the products you currently use. How would you enjoy a thin, watery ink that fell off needles before making it to the skin? 

In the world of tattooing viscosity is really important. This aspect of pigment production determines how well the ink travels and much effort has gone into manipulating it to achieve an easier to use product. The ease of use during the transfer is defined as how the product travels.

Travelling can be taken a few different ways:

  • How it flows when dispensing from the bottle into an ink cap.
  • The effectiveness of moving from cap to skin.
  • How it moves from on the needles into the skin.

If the tattoo pigment is too thin, you won’t be able to transfer enough from the ink cap to skin. If it’s too thick, it won’t flow well and will be stuck  to the needles rather than transfer into the skin.

All variances in travel are modulated by the type and use of surfactants added to a tattoo pigment.

Pigment Chemistry – Surfactants

This class of chemicals/solutions are compounds that modify the surface tension of liquids or liquids and solids (also solids and gases). Surfactant is a simplification of the term Surface Active Agent. These active agents can be broken down into multiple categories, so let’s take a quick peek at what a few of them do.

Surface Tension – The tendency of a liquid to shrink to the minimum surface area – The water/liquid used in suspensions for tattooing need to have a high level of surface tension to be utilized properly. Increasing the surface tension of a liquid, such as water, ensures it won’t ball up.

  • Detergents – A group of compounds with a pos+, neg- or neutral charge that bind to specific elements or compounds easily. Detergents bind with water and can be used to ensure uniformity of particle distribution. (see PEG – Polyethylene Glycol – Pigment article Hazard Prediction)
  • Wetting agents – These compounds are used in pigment chemistry to increase the likelihood of a liquid staying in contact with a smooth/metallic surface. Wetting agents are used to increase a pigments ability to cling to needles. (see a brief article, 2nd page, about wetting agents – Materials used in Body Art)
  • Foaming Agents– These can either increase or decrease the amount of foaming that occurs with a mixture. Foaming agents are used to decrease the bubbles that form when the mixture of tattoo pigment is shaken to mix. These additives are also used to decrease shipping weights of products by requiring less pigment to achieve the same results (see a particular post rabbit hole article about a foaming agent alcohol ethoxylates  – HERA Risk Assessment of Alcohol Ethoxylates
  • Dispersants– While the dispersant is typically assigned to the water substance a tattoo pigment is held within, there are additional additives used to change the consistency of pigments. These additives are called plasticizers and are used in tattoo pigments to help in the dispersion/separation of pigments collected inside the mixture. They prevent clumping and collection at the bottom of a bottle. (see an article, or do a Google Search on Dibutyl Phthalate – Black Tattoo Inks)
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Why surfactants matter

All of the above types of materials/compounds/agents are used in some pigments to increase the users (you) enjoyment of the product. If the pigment you are using is too thick, too thin, doesn’t transfer well into the skin or goes in too quickly, your idea of quality will be quick to change. Remember the idea of labels we discussed in an earlier article? This quality label would be misleading if you had an experience with the product that resulted in an unhappy client.

There is also a ton of info about how viscosity affects the physical flow of pigment into skin but that will take the use of physics. Perhaps it is best if we leave that aspect of the trade for another article.

Organic versus Inorganic – Tattoo Pigment Chemistry

The phrase organic has permeated our society in the west, and we implicitly trust the idea of it. Organic is known as something safe, clean and healthy – but in the world of tattoo pigments, organic means something totally different. The term organic stands for any naturally occurring matter or compound that is carbon based. It is a scientific term that distinguishes the properties of a product molecularly.

Check that

–> Carbon Based <–

There is little to no application that this idea that should attach a sense of cleanliness, eco-friendliness or health. It is the most simple name-based application of the chemical structure. Once again I want to point out the idea that labels are very unique in how we choose to interpret goods or services during our daily grind.

Tattoo Pigments – Differences in applications

The tattoo industry, and its clientele, want a quality finished product. It ensures that the work put into a tattoo stays vibrant and legible for the lifetime of the person who wears it. All those involved also demand the best quality for their hard earned money. The price put on experience and talent far outweighs the physical cost of the tattoo setup, so why should artists and clients alike worry about a small increase in price to ensure a safer product.

Inside the industry, the need for bold, bright and lightfast colors pushed the pigment suppliers away from time tested solutions of raw, inorganic pigments. This push has moved artists towards synthetically derived, organic pigments. To boot, some of the colors we use currently in tattoos are not significantly different when compared to what is used in commercial applications (like automotive or artists paints).

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Photodegradation is the breakdown of substances when they interact with light. All pigments go through photodegradation, whether it be in the skin, or outside of it. This unique mechanism between light and pigments increases our need for understanding how pigments break down when exposed to UV light. We also need to know more about the chemicals released that may affect our bodies that are a byproduct of this degradation.

We, as an industry, need to know that a pigment is safe. If that is an impossibility we need enough information so that we can accurately describe to our clients the potential health hazards that may result from receiving a tattoo. We also require this knowledge to better understand our own health and how it may be affected by doing this job.

Specific Issues With Modern Pigments and Additives

Modern AZO pigments (pigment found in some tested samples by recent analysis) are photoreactive in a way that releases carcinogenic compounds when interacting with light energy. Other pigments used have also been laced with inorganic compounds that cause disease. 

Moving forward. the industry should be able to acknowledge that all pigments are to be non-toxic or biocompatible. If that cannot be achieved, they should aim for pigments to be non-effective to tissues or systems inside the body. The only way for this to come about is to learn more about the thing that we use in our daily work lives.

The list of what we need to be safe for our applications of tattoos is different compared to the other industries that utilize pigment daily. There is little to worry about when comparing tattooing to commercial or industrial applications, where health effects are not limited to the individual, but to the environment at large, although some of the ingredients in tattoo pigments are known to be dangerous to aquatic life and have the potential to poison waterways.

In the next article we will look at the chemistry of pigment solutions and how the pigments used currently stand up to analysis.


Coglianese, C., & Walters, D. E. (2021). Whither the regulatory “war on coal”? Scapegoats, saviors, and stock market reactions. Ecology Law Quarterly47(1), 1-72.

Serup, J., Harrit, N. H., Linnet, J. T., Møhl, B., Olsen, O., & Westh, H. (2015). Tattoos – health, risks and culture: with an introduction to the ‘seamless prevention strategy’. The Council on Health and Disease Prevention.