Tattoo Pigment – Safety and Regulations
Posted in Tattoo Philosophy


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 artists in industry combined, led me to formulate a critique that became a monster, 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 came more naturally 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 as a way to test these beliefs. 

In writing this article, I have spent hours of research, sent hundreds of emails and travelled many hours away from my family to try and create a framework for what I hoped could be accomplished by releasing any information. It was also an attempt to find the answers I knew were out there. In any event, the information listed in the reference section is not comprehensive, but a starting point for many out there who may wish to learn more.

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

Currently, there are two sides debating the future of pigment production in the tattoo industry. On one side, the suppliers and distributors of the products tattoo artists use are confronted with questions about how safe their products are. They are confronted with the potential of regulations which will be handed down by regulators which focus on the health and long term effects of products used in tattooing. The suppliers and producers are actively fighting these potential new regulations. Their argument is that self-regulation has been successful and there is no need for any regulations. They have the clients best health interest as their primary focus. They argue that government regulators should stay out of private business as self imposed regulations are the best course of action.

On the other, questions are being presented by scientific researchers and regulators in the U.S. and the European Union. These questions are centered on the safety and efficacy of products being sold and will lead to regulations when enough data is collected about the health effects of tattoo products. Scientists are forced to ask these questions after testing results show that suppliers and distributors have released products that have been contaminated or produced with known harmful chemicals.


The efforts by scientists are progressing slowly and have been exacerbated by the lack of regulations and need for new testing protocol. For the past 20 years or so, companies producing new products for the market have been able to innovate away from the regular testing of products for safety. These innovations 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, but recent testing has shown that a healthy future for a large population on the planet may be at risk.

While new products are continually being developed, the gap in scientific testing has presented itself as something in need of innovation. The efforts of scientists globally have just begun developing ways to analyze and inspect products for tattooing, and in doing so, they are better able to determine what is in tattoo products and if they are safe or not. As testing has evolved, scientists have found new ways to analyze what is in tattoo artist’s supplies. They can tell us what is not listed on the label. 


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. I go into scattered detail throughout the article of how I feel the companies in question will react to questions and based these tactics off of other companies who were confronted with the asme threat of regulations historically. (Special focus given to the cigarette companies in the U.S.)

Historically, companies facing new restrictions pushed the idea of regulators having an ulterior motive. Companies had previously argued that they being 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 argued that these new regulations 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.

Because the push for regulations have already hit other industries, tattoo suppliers 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 how they will fight regulators. This attack focuses on creating a system of shifting blame to keep new regulations from being applied for as long as possible. 

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 and looking to businesses fighting regulation the past, it always has been.

What companies are up against when facing regulation

New regulations create new process 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.

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 no 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. 

A question about quality and safety

For the most part, tattoo artists worldwide believe in the safety and efficacy of products made by these 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, especially when quality is meant to describe safety. The idea of quality, to supply companies, is not meant to describe a level of safety, it is meant to denote a level of effectiveness.

When consumers think of quality, various images pop into their minds: Clean, safe, grand, effective… While this is not a full list of descriptors for products, the labels listed above (and many others) are being applied to tattoo products. When used independently, each word has a unique meaning that a person can visualize. When using multiple descriptive labels together, the visualization a person receives is much different. If manipulation of simple language structure create different interpretations when applied to a product, products must live up to these interpretations when being released to the public. It is essential when the safety of an individual who is undergoing a permanent modification to their body is reliant on a product that may not live up to how it is described.

Here is an explanation for what was stated above.

Patients require doctors to have quality training and tools when undergoing surgery. In this sense, quality embodies the feeling of safety. 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 and taste. It has little to do with the safety of such an item. Unless we attach a second descriptor like organic or grass-fed. When combining organic, grass-fed and quality we are given a different understanding of what quality means. It feels safer, cleaner and more responsible. This goes with most products that are marketed to us and is no different with tattoo pigments.

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. 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 are not does not align with what the tattoo industry currently believe they are buying. This practice must stop, or be modified to ensure education about product efficacy and safety are well understood by consumers.

The idea of quality has evolved. Quality doesn’t only apply to the products tattoo artist use. It also applies to the people involved in the industry. Clients see REAL artists (real as in the graduated with a degree -Something that was uncommon 2 decades ago) joining the ranks of the industry. Young adults leaving their educational institutions are dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist. These artists are the new rockstars of a generation and have progressed the development of amazing tattoos available for the clientele that trust them with their body. While this progression has been an amazing evolution to sit back and watch, we have been left with a glaring hole in the knowledge of what the industry must know to be successful. Tattooing cannot wholly focused on art; it is an experience for a client that leaves them marked for a lifetime. We are only conduits for their acceptance of our artwork.

Cultural acceptance and this renewed renaissance in applying a tattoo artistically gave 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 when they wholly focus on a single artistic style in their field. Mastery demands a full knowledge of all aspects in a field of study. Beyond that, the person achieving mastery must understand their place in the craft and how they are able to aid in it’s evolution.

My worry is that the application of quality to these businesses and the products they release are a straw man in the industry.

The deficiency in tattoo artist mastery mirrors what the pigment companies face as the threat of new regulations puts them under scrutiny. These companies may be exposed as the inexperienced professional being represented as a master. They may not know as much as they claim, and when placed under examination about their practices, must provide exceptional proof to obtain the mastery which may be falsely applied.

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 that what has occurred in such little time is unbelievable. (Good or bad, they usually have an opinion worth listening to.) These long standing veterans come from a time where mastery was a viable option and the critiques they offer should not be ignored. As the industry evolves away from the past, where self sufficiency was a normal practice of business, more reliance is placed upon the suppliers and distributors to release products that are safe and effective.

With scientific innovation tattooists are blessed with unbelievable color lines and new products that break from the clumsy production of the past. As products were developed, tattoo artists trusted their release without question. They were trusted because tattoo artists weren’t given a choice; because without these products, tattoo artists couldn’t do their jobs. They were held hostage as knowledge was slowly stripped away form the industry and held closely by few who made a profit off it. Tattoo artists were led to believe the future lies in innovation, not in mastery.  Because tattoo artists had never learned about manufacturing pigments , they never knew that they could ask if pigments are considered 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 manufacture these pigments themselves. Through clever marketing, they were led to believe mastery could come from the utilization of modern products and media sources, while sacrificing client experience. While this was occurring, a previous generations knowledge slowly slipped into obsolescence. 

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 brings additional stress to continue innovation and recently 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 began 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.

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 maximising 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.


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.


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. 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 each party can discuss the safety and efficacy of the products they choose to use.

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 industry of tattooing 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”. 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 critique 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?

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 is reportedly, nearly 20,000 tattoo parlors open 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 or illegally in the US alone but, I imagine these numbers would add many tattooers to the total assumed.

All tattoo artists, professional or otherwise, must 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.

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. 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 maximising 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”, such practices 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. Short term revenue gains do not offset ethical responsibility. Sadly, when given the choice to make profit or operate ethically, businesses have shown us time and again that they prefer to make a profit. I believe this occurs in the tattoo industry currently.

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 supercede 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.

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.

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 to the person 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.

The Choices We Make

Tattoo artists are in a difficult position when it comes to choosing which supplies to use. Most product use is wholly subjective, as the application of art is an extension of their person. If there is a need to find something new, how are artists going to make a decision? 

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? What is the industry doing to increase its collective knowledge?

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.


If you are happy with the amount of reading you have done. Here is a pace to leave off and pick up whenever you choose. The next section is an explanation about tattoo pigments and what they are comprised of. 


Part 2 – Tattoo Pigment Chemistry

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.

What is in tattoo pigments – preface to the chemistry

Tattoo pigments are mainly comprised of a pigment and a carrier solution. The raw pigments 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.

Differences in application

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. We will get into the differentiation later on.

In tattooing, pigments are injected into the skin. That pigment is handled by an immune response that keeps the particles of ink stationery in our skin permanently. Different types of ink/pigments react differently with our bodies.


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 the chemicals released ay affect our bodies. We, as an industry, need to know that a pigment is safe or that we can accurately describe to our clients the potential health hazards that may occur from receiving a tattoo.

Modern AZO pigments (pigment found in some tested samples by recent analysis) are photoreactive in a way that releases carcinogenic compounds. 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 at best. If that cannot be achieved, they should aim for pigments to be non-effective to tissues or systems inside the body.

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.

Tattoo Pigments – Differences is composition

Dyes- Dyes are either a synthetic or natural substance that is suspended 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, allowing only specific wavelengths to be seen. (overly simplified but, ya know…) This is why pigments look different under different light sources. 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.


Raw, inorganic tattoo pigments are insoluble. This means that they are unable to be blended with a liquid (such as water). This trait is unlike what dyes are able to. To blend the colors we use in tattooing, pigments are mixed with a solution called a carrier fluid. These carrier fluids ensure the pigment’s ability to be transferred directly into the skin once picked up with a needle and tube. By utilizing carrier fluids and surfactants (which is described in a section below), a mixture is able to be transferred in the correct ratio, via dipping in a tattoo ink cap, before being injected in the skin.

Carrier fluids are inactive ingredients that act as vehicles for substances. In tattooing, a carrier is a substance that pigment is suspended in. Without the carrier, our pigments would be a dry powder which could not be injected into the skin.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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).

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

Most 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). 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. There is still widespread use of some inorganic pigments, mainly whites and 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 factual or not has yet have been observed.

Reactivity and allergic reactions

The reaction rate had kept consistent year over year, since recording began until the more recent use of synthetic-organics. This increased rate of reactions has been more common following the boom in tattooing that started in the early 2000’s. While one could argue that the rates and the change have only occurred due to increased reporting which is a result of more people getting tattooed, we could also attribute the increase to a change in the products used. In this same period tattoo artists had migrated from inorganic pigments to the new synthetic-organic pigments, as they became the new staple of artists globally.

In recent times, reports of known bacterial contamination in tattoo pigments have been reported. These contaminations make them unsafe for general use. You can find information about these on the FDA website, where they release recall information of the general public. These reports are also listed on pigment producing companies’ websites, when required by the FDA recall protocol.

Onto Chemistry

With a little grounding in what pigments are and how they are made, let’s take a quick look at the chemistry surrounding pigment mixing.

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 the needles make it to the skin? Would you enjoy a thicker consistency? 

Break that idea down and apply viscosity to tattoo pigments: Viscosity determines how well the ink travels. Travelling can be taken a few different ways:

  • How it travels on the needles into the skin,
  • how it moves from dispensing bottle to cap
  • effectiveness of moving from cap to 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 enough down the needles 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 gasses). 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)

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.

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

There is also a ton of info about how viscosity affects the physical flow of pigment into skin but, I am not a physics major so I shall digress and move to the next bit.

Types of pigments used

This list and image is taken from BASF’s website. They are the largest chemical producer in the world with revenues in excess of 60 billion euros yearly. They produce pigments that are used in tattooing and have information about pigment safety available for download for the general public.


Organic pigments 

  • Azo pigments
    Monoazo yellow and orange
  • Diazo
  • Naphthol 
  • Naphthol AS
  • Azo lakes
  • Benzimidazolone
  •  Diazo condensation
  • Metal complex


  • Polycyclic pigments
  • Phthalocyanine
  • Quinacridone 
  • Perylene and perinone
  • Thioindigo
  • Anthraquinone 
  • Dioxazine 
  • Isoindolinone and isoindoline
  • Diketo-pyrrolo-pyrrole (DPP)
  • Triaryl Carbonium 
  • Quinophthalone 

Inorganic pigments

  • Titanium dioxide white
  • Iron oxide
  • Carbon and vegetable black
  • Cadmium
  • Lead chromate
  • Chromium oxide green
  • Chrome green
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Iron blue
  • Phthalo chrome green
  • Manganese oxide (MNO)
  • Mixed metal oxide
  • Bi-vanadate

While I don’t have enough time to go into the exact nature of each pigment type, I will create additional articles describing the pigments listed above at a later time. Now, we will look into the use of azo pigments.

Azo Pigments

To start, here is a little video about azo pigments and where they come from. (it was hard to find any video that was like… useful)

While the results of azo based pigments are something beyond the natural world and lend themselves to tattooing well, we have evidence that some of these pigment sources are unhealthy for humans and animals.

There has been studies done more recently that show as much as 80% of pigments produced and released in Europe contained azo pigments. Findings of these studies show most dyes/pigments found in those samples collected may not cause issues with human/animal health, but that they were sourced and designed for purposes other than use in humans.

The pigments found from analysis were the same used in automotive and industrial applications (auto paint), or weren’t the most pure of samples (meaning they contain heavy metals to augment the effect of the pigments).

This is where I leave you. If you wish to find more information, check the link at the top of the page. It will take you to a folder with many articles about pigment safety, as well as the results of testing done by the Kanton Basel in Switzerland.

Thanks for reading!

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