This is part 5 of the pigment safety article. We will look at the sources of pigments and what we mix them with to make the commercially available solutions we use currently.
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.
- Aluminium 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
–> 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).
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. 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 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.