tattoo stencil product being used to apply a stencil before freehand defsign is added

How Do Tattoo Stencil Products Work?

Do you know how tattooing a stencil product works? If you are going to get a tattoo, chances are that you are going to need a stencil applied. As by some sort of magical means, a tracing of a picture you picked out is applied to the surface of your skin. The tattoo artist traces the heck out of this design and soon, you end up with an amazing (hopefully) tattoo. Here is a video we made about it:

If you are wondering how this necessary element of tattooing happens, read on!

What Are Tattoo Stencil Products?

Tattoo stencil products are anything that an artist uses to apply a stencil to your skin. These products can be tailor-made for tattooing or can be repurposed for use in applying a stencil. Brand name products will not be listed in this article because we at Better Tattooing don’t promote products. Sorry, not sorry!

Before You Apply a Stencil, You Need to Prep the Skin.

Everyone’s skin needs to be prepped before a stencil is applied. This ensures you have a clean surface, that is oil-free, that will more easily accept a stencil. Think of when a person gets a sample taken at the doctor’s office. If they didn’t wipe down the area with an alcohol wipe or iodine, bad things could happen. Since the tattoo is going to be injecting things into your skin, the same care should be taken before the stencil is applied. To prepare skin for a stencil, do the following:

  1. Discuss whether any products used, or their ingredients, may cause a reaction or trigger an allergy.
    1. This seems like it shouldn’t need to be written but let’s not skip a step here.
  2. Put on a pair of disposable gloves.
  3. Clean the skin with an acceptable product. If possible, use alcohol 70% isopropyl.
    1. This will ensure a clean surface so as not to introduce infection during a tattoo.
    2. Using a product like isopropyl alcohol also desiccates the skin, making it easier for the transfer ink to get absorbed into the skin.
  4. Allow the skin to dry and get ready to apply a stencil.

If you want to learn more about different skin types, check out our article: Skin Color, Tone and Complexion – What This Means For Your Tattoo. Before we get into the application, let’s look at what commercially products commonly contain.

tattoo stencil being filled in by a tattoo artist

What Are Tattoo Stencil Products Made from and How do They Work?

Tattoo stencil products utilize 3 things to make a transfer happen. Most commercially available products out there will contain a moisturizer, humectant, and an acid/alcohol-based additive. Let’s look at what each ingredient in the stencil product does.

Moisturizing agent.

A moisturizing agent is necessary for a tattoo stencil product. This is because the ink used in the stencil needs to be “carried” into the skin on something. Once the wax encapsulated pigment is broken down by an acid/alcohol, the ink is free-floating inside a liquid wax. This is mixed with the moisturizer that is then pulled into desiccated skin via a humectant. Common moisturizing agents are lotions, creams, or things like aloe vera. At times, moisturizing agents can even plain water.

Acid/alcohol-based additives

This is needed to break down the wax encapsulated pigment trapped on the back of the stencil transfer sheet. The acid/alcohol mixed with the wax encapsulated pigment creates a liquid that resembles the outline set on the transfer paper. This “floating pigment” can be drawn into the skin via the humectant. Common acid/alcohol-based additives are things like aloe vera (as seen above, it is a moisturizer and acid at the same time), isopropyl alcohol, and glycolic acid.

tattoo stencil product applied a tattoo stencil


Humectants are substances that attract moisture. When applied to the skin, humectants draw humidity from surrounding substances (think moisturizers), or from the bottom layers of the dermis (it pulls hydration up through the skin). We shall call this the sandwich effect. When a humectant is applied to the skin and meets with the ester of pigments drawn off the transfer sheet, they end up pulling the stencil into the skin using a moisturizer as the carrier fluid. The lower layers of the dermis also supply moisture, keeping the ink at a superficial level in the skin. Common humectants are manuka honey, propylene glycol, and HLA. Talking about these products makes me think we should drop a line to the article we have about types of aftercare products. Don’t You? See our article to learn more: Types of Aftercare Products – What’s The Difference?

What is in Stencil Ink?

There can be several different pigments: mauvine, gentian violet, or other natural dye substances. Inks are encapsulated in a wax that is broken down by the alcohol/acid ingredient inside stencil transfer products.

How Long Does a Tattoo Stencil Last?

This is going to be subject to how well the skin was prepped. What skin condition the client has, as well as the environmental influences surrounding the physical space the tattoo is being done in. Here are a few tips to help you apply a stencil effectively:

  • Stencil applications work more effectively in high relative humidity.
  • Try using different brands on different types of skin to see what works best. Dry skin may do better with an occlusive-based transfer product when compared to a cream/lotion.
  • To remove a stencil that was placed incorrectly, use hand sanitizer. The alcohols in it remove the stencil ink and the glycerin in the product ensures it won’t evaporate as fast.
  • If you have removed a stencil too many times that it is now unable to be removed- apply some A&D or Vaseline to the area. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes, then try hand sanitizer again.

tattoo stencil of a bird

Can I Be Allergic to Tattoo Stencil Products?

Yes, you can! Be sure to read all product labels and do a patch test before going in to get a tattoo. If you are looking for the “best product to use for applying a tattoo stencil”, there is little evidence that one product out there works better than another. The best bet is to talk to a dermatologist to see what they recommend based on your skin tone/complexion. If you are the adventurous sort, try purchasing some stencil paper and different stencil application products. Take them with you to the doctor and see if they will help you do a patch test. If a doctor is out of the question, talk with your tattoo artist to see if they can help you try things out before the tattoo session.

In Conclusion

It is not magic! Stencil products use some basic chemistry to get some ink in your skin. Thanks to this, tattoo artists the world over can rely on their tracing skills to create amazing designs.

We also have a YouTube channel that breaks down commonly asked tattoo questions. You can find it by following this link:

Better Tattooing YouTube Channel

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