The tattoo culture often refers to the process as “getting work done” or “getting inked.” The truth is, the solutions used to color the skin is not ink at all, but pigments suspended in a carrier solution, in most cases, water. The function of the carrier solution is to clean the pigments, and keep them well mixed and smooth so that the application is easier and more comfortable. Sometimes the carrier is a mixture of a couple of things. Other commonly used, and probably the safest carriers are Listerine, witch hazel, ethyl alcohol, propylene glycol and glycerin.
It pays to ask what kind of carrier the tattooist is using. You wouldn’t believe the things some unscrupulous scratchers would but into your skin. Here are some you should be aware of:
• Denatured alcohols – These can burn the skin, and are toxic, even if you don’t show any initial reaction.
• Rubbing alcohol – toxic, toxic, toxic!
• Ethylene glycol – antifreeze falls into this category
• Various detergents
There is a common belief that the pigments used are vegetable dye. While that’s probable true some of the time. Metal salts are more commonly used, and sometimes even plastics. The earliest known pigments were pure, ground up pigments. As stated above, the ones used today come from several different substances, namely plastics and metals. Plastic-based colors produce the most vivid colors, but more people report reactions to in than the other “inks.”
Black light tattoos are a recent fad. The tattoo appears to be very faint or totally invisible in regular light, but shows up under a black light. The craze has really caught on, with black lit clubs and bars. However, the ink that makes it all possible is new and unproven, and may be something to be wary of. Some it could be toxic or even radioactive.
Alcohol is good for sterilization, but there are a lot of other risks involved. It makes the skin more permeable so more chemicals are allowed into the bloodstream than would be normally. It also causes more bleeding and the ink may not stay in the skin as well as it should, leading to a spotty tattoo. It’s also a “promoter,” binding with pollutants and carcinogens to make them even more harm than they would alone. That means, if the pigments aren’t absolutely pure the alcohol could bind with and impurity that may pass through your system on its own and wreak havoc on your body.
Tattoo artists have a choice to either mix their own inks or to buy them premixed. Purchasing them from a well established and reputable supplier is usually pretty safe. They aren’t going to intentionally risk their business and their future profits by selling something that could bring legal action against them. However, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate such things, so they aren’t obligated to supply a list of ingredients. You’re more likely to find out exactly what’s in the ink if it’s mixed on the spot by your artist, but it is up to him if he fills you in or not. That’s right; they don’t have to tell you anything. Such things are protected as trade secrets.
If you have had allergic reactions to certain metals before, say to the nickel in a pair of earrings or faux gold jewelry; mention it to the artist before you actually go in for the ink. He should know if you might have a reaction to the ink. He might even be able to mix the ink in a different way that is less likely to aggravate your allergies.