January 11, 2012

Tattoo Pigments and Dyes

Many tattoo artists have their own unique pigment blend that they use regularly, made to an exact recipe that they keep a closely guarded secret.  In reality the majority of dyes on the market today contain traditional vegetable dyes along with metal salts and plastics.  One of the newest dye adaptations is a UV reactive agent that makes the tattoo react to black light, plus inks that absorb light then release it for a glow in the dark effect for an added artistic dimension.

Pigments and Carriers

It would be very unwise to attempt a tattoo with pigment alone as a carrier assists in keeping the pigments balanced and fluid during application.  There are five main carriers that are used, either on their own or as a mixture; these are purified water, witch hazel, ethyl alcohol, glycerine and propylene glycol.  This is what each artist uses to develop a recipe blend that works the best for them and goes on to use throughout the majority of their career. Henna is possibly the most widely used pigment.  Derived from the Lawsonia Inermis plant it provides a natural and intense level of colour.  Henna is very safe to use as allergic reactions to it are very rare.  Used mainly for temporary tattoos and hair colouring henna is a very practical and harmless pigment.

Some pigments can cause severe allergic reactions, especially across the yellow and red range of colours.  Red inks often contain mercury or other heavy metals such as iron oxide or cadmium; it is the addition of these metals to the inks that give them their permanence.  It is also the addition of these metals that is responsible for the majority of reactions.  Reactions can range from scarring and eczema to lifelong mercury sensitivity, including any existing tooth fillings.  Other colours also contain heavy metals like antimony, cobalt nickel, lead, arsenic and chromium, all of which can lead to reactions in the skin.  A huge variety of pigments are available readymade, called pre-dispersed inks, which remove the need to mix carriers and individually dry pigments to create inks.


With a vast colour palette available to artists there is literally nothing from nature than cannot be recreated on a living canvas.  There are over fifty different shades and pigments available with more being regularly added to the list.  However, though readily accessible there is very little available in the way of governance that regulates their supply and use.  In fact you would be hard pressed to find a product that has been licensed for injection into the skin as tattooing pigment is not regulated as closely as pigments used in the general cosmetics and beauty industry.  If you are considering having a tattoo, and have had any form of allergic reaction to any chemical based products in the past, you would be wise to check with your chosen tattoo artist to check just what ingredients are in the inks he or she will be using before you start.


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