This is part 2 of a 4 part article on tattoo pigment safety. It picks up right where left of. To start, let’s take a step back and go through some of the history of tattoo pigments, what they are made up of and what we are currently facing with our choices of pigments in the tattoo industry.
(EDIT- It’s gonna be 5 parts. Fuck)
Tattoo pigments – Chemistry
To understand why we need regulations we first need to understand what is in pigments, how those ingredients interact in the body, and how these interactions may be harmful to us.
What is in tattoo pigments
Tattoo pigments are mainly comprised of pigment and a carrier solution. The raw pigments are manufactured by large companies and sold to smaller distributors who mix and bottle the solutions.
Here is a video by How It’s Made that describes the process of making inorganic pigments.
Tattoo Pigment – Differences in application
To add clarification to the term pigment; the term is often interchangeable with descriptions like dyes, colors and inks. While we may use these terms colloquially, they stand for different things.
In tattooing, pigments are injected into the skin. That pigment is handled by an immune response that keeps the particles of ink in our skin pwrmanently.
Different types of ink/pigments used cause different reactions with our bodies.
All pigments go through photodegredation. This unique mechanism between light and pigments increases our need for understanding the effects of used pigments. We, as an industry, need to know that pigments are safe. We in the industry want all pigments to be non-toxic or biocompatible, non-effective to tissues or systems inside the body and safe to immune responses/allergic responses.
This list can be considered different compared to the other industries that utilize pigment daily. There is little to worry about when compared to commercial or industrial applications, where health effects are not limited to the individual but to the environment at large.
Tattoo Pigments – Differences is composition
Dyes- Dyes are either a synthetic or natural 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 refract light to create a color. When reduced in saturation the color emitted becomes less vibrant or loses the color emitted entirely.
Raw tattoo pigments are insoluble. This means that they are unable to be blended with a liquid (such as water) like 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 is ensure the pigment’s ability to be transferred directly into the skin. This 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 being used would be simply a dry powder which could not be injected into the skin.
Most modern pigment carriers are comprised of some or all listed: 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 tattooists a specific feel, consistency and ease of use. These additives are rarely reported or displayed on packaging when released to the public.
Organic versus inorganic – Tattoo Pigment Chemistry
The phrase organic has permeated our society in the west and we implicitly trust the idea of the phrase. Organic is know as something safe, clean and healthy but in the world of tattoo pigments, organic means something totally different.
The term organic, before being mass marketed, stood for any naturally occurring matter or compound that is carbon based. It is a scientific term that distinguishes the properties of a product molecularly.
–> Carbon Based <–
There is little to no appilication of 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
We in the tattoo industry want a quality finished product. It ensures that the work we put into a tattoo stays vibrant and clean for the lifetime of the person who wears it. Our clients also want the best quality for their hard earned money. The price we put on our experience and talent far outweighs the physical cost of the tattoo setup so why should we worry about a small increase in price to ensure a safer product.
You can check out our cost calculator here for more information about the average cost to setup a tattoo.
Inside the tattoo industry, the need for bold, bright and lightfast colors has pushed the pigment manufacturers away from time tested solutions of inorganic pigments towards synthetically derived organic pigments. The colors we use currently in tattoos are not significantly different when compared to what is used in cosmetics or commercial applications (like automotive or artists paints).
We do not intend to use the same base pigments that are out there for car painting, but as the industry has moved forward and demanded more lightfast, vibrant colors, distributors have been quick to switch over.
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. In more modern times, up until the last 20 years, pigments have been mainly made up of 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 tattoo pigments
Modern colors that are commercially available for industry operators are made up mostly of synthetic organic pigments. There is still wide-spread use of some inorganic pigments, mainly white and black.
Tattoo pigments – safety
At times there has been known bacterial contamination in tattoo pigments that make them unsafe for general use. You can find information about these on the FDA website where they released recall information of the general public as well as listed on these pigment producing companies’ websites.
Whether this is good or not has yet have been observed as the reaction rate stays constant year over year. This consistent rate of reactions has been more common following the boom in tattooing that started in the early 2000’s and the change over from inorganic sourced pigments to the new organic and synthetic pigments we use currently.
Some Chemistry now
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. That is kind of simplified but, think of Ketchup. Do you remember ketchup in glass bottles? It was damned near impossible to get that ketchup out of the bottle but, if you were lucky enough to get it started, it ran quite well onto your plate. More often than not, it would pour out and cover my fries with too much red goodness.
THis may not seem like something that matters to tattooing, or to the pigments, but think about the products you currently use. How would you enjoy a watery ass ink that fell off the needles? Would you enjoy a thicker consistency? If so, what if it was like fucking fluffy whip when you tried to put it in the skin; would that make you happy?
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
Surfactants – It’s is like a heading!
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 viscosity matters
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 wont 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.
- Azo pigments
Monoazo yellow and orange
- Naphthol AS
- Azo lakes
- Diazo condensation
- Metal complex
- Polycyclic pigments
- Perylene and perinone
- Isoindolinone and isoindoline
- Diketo-pyrrolo-pyrrole (DPP)
- Titanium dioxide white
- Iron oxide
- Carbon and vegetable black
- Lead chromate
- Chromium oxide green
- Chrome green
- Ultramarine blue
- Iron blue
- Phthalo chrome green
- Manganese oxide (MNO)
- Mixed metal oxide
While I dont have enough time to go into the exact nature of each pigment type, we will look into the use of azo pigments specifically below.
Azo Pigments – Pigment Safety
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 we will leave this post for this week. I am going to add an additional post that breaks down the science behind azo pigments.
Thanks for reading so far!