Tattoos have become increasingly popular over the past few decades, with studies estimating that up to 40% of young adults now have at least one tattoo. With so many people getting inked, questions around tattoo safety have arisen. One of the most common questions is whether black tattoo ink is safer than colored inks.
In this article, we’ll examine the ingredients commonly used in black and colored tattoo inks, look at the potential health risks associated with each, and discuss studies that have analyzed the safety of different ink colors. We’ll also provide tips for minimizing risks when getting a new tattoo.
How Tattoo Ink Is Made
Before analyzing the potential risks of black vs. colored inks, it’s helpful to understand what’s actually in them. Here’s a quick overview:
- Pigments – Finely ground particles that give tattoo ink its color. Common pigments include organic compounds like azo pigments as well as metal salts and metal oxides.
- Carriers – Liquid ingredients that dissolve the pigment and allow it to flow easily. Commonly used carriers include water, glycerin, and isopropyl alcohol.
- Binders – Thickeners that help tattoo ink adhere in the skin. Binders include ingredients like witch hazel extract and acrylic polymers.
- Preservatives – Added to prevent microbial growth. Common preservatives include methylparaben, ethylparaben, and propylparaben.
While all tattoo inks contain these basic ingredients, the specific pigments used vary between black ink and brightly colored inks.
Black Tattoo Ink Ingredients
The most common pigments used in black tattoo ink include:
- Carbon black – Made from combusting hydrocarbons, carbon black is the most common black pigment used in tattoo inks. It’s an inert material that’s considered safe for use in cosmetics and food packaging.
- Iron oxides – Compounds like magnetite (Fe3O4) that contain iron and oxygen. Iron oxides are FDA-approved for use in coloring food, drugs, and cosmetics.
- Logwood – A natural black dye extracted from the logwood tree. It has a long history of use in textile dyes and black writing inks.
These carbon-based black pigments have low potential for causing adverse reactions in most people. However, some studies have found contaminants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in low levels in some black tattoo inks.
Color Tattoo Ink Ingredients
Brightly colored tattoo inks contain more varied pigments including:
- Azo pigments – Synthetic organic dyes like Pigment Red 22, Pigment Yellow 65, and Pigment Blue 15. They produce bright, saturated colors.
- Quinacridone – Organic pigments like PR209 (quinacridone red) used for bright reds, violets, and magentas.
- Phthalocyanine – Blue and green pigments containing phthalocyanine compounds. Examples are Pigment Blue 15 and Pigment Green 7.
- Dioxazine – Violet pigments like carbazole violet made by oxidizing other organic compounds.
- Metal oxides – Inorganic pigments like chromium oxide greens and titanium dioxide white. Provides opaque coverage.
The molecular structure and metals in these synthetic pigments may cause more skin irritation and other reactions compared to simple carbon-based black ink.
Potential Health Risks of Black vs. Color Inks
When evaluating tattoo ink safety, we need to look at two types of potential risks:
- Short-term risks from getting a new tattoo, like infection or irritation
- Long-term health concerns from ink ingredients seeping into the body
Let’s compare how black and colored inks stack up in each category.
For both black and colored inks, the main short-term risks come from improper tattooing procedures rather than the ink ingredients. These include:
- Infections from unsanitary equipment or improper aftercare
- Allergic reactions, especially to ingredients like witch hazel or glycerin
- Granulomas or keloids caused by overworking the skin during tattooing
- MRI complications from some pigments interacting with magnetic fields
When proper precautions are taken, there is little difference in short-term risks between black and colored inks.
This is where we start to see some divergence between black and colored tattoo inks. Some pigments commonly used in brighter color tattoos have been associated with long-term health impacts:
- Metal toxicity – Metals like mercury, aluminum, and cobalt used in pigments may accumulate in lymph nodes.
- Carcinogens – Ingredients like oxybenzone and PAHs may disrupt hormones and cause DNA damage.
- Photoreactions – Some pigments like cinnabar (red) change color and release metals when exposed to UV light.
- Bioaccumulation – Organic chemicals may not fully break down in the body and could accumulate over time.
While traces of contaminants have been found in some black inks, carbon black and iron oxide pigments are largely inert and considered non-toxic. Black ink made with logwood may also be a safer natural alternative.
Studies on Black vs. Color Tattoo Ink Safety
Multiple studies have analyzed the chemical composition of tattoo inks on the market. Here are some of their key findings comparing black and colored inks:
European Council Studies
In a 2003 study, the European Council tested 56 tattoo inks and found that:
- Black inks had lower concentrations of risky chemicals like PAHs and metals than brighter color inks.
- Brighter red and yellow inks contained high levels of barium, copper, and zinc.
- Brighter inks were more likely to contain carcinogenic aromatic amines.
They concluded black inks were the safest choice.
FDA Ink Testing
A 2016 FDA study reported analyzing over 100 different tattoo inks for elements like metals and organic chemicals. They found:
- Black ink had lower detections and levels of elements like aluminum, arsenic, and lead.
- Brighter reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, and blues were more contaminated.
- Inks with Brilliant Blue and Pigment Green pigments had the highest average number of detections.
This data showed colored inks had higher risk profiles overall.
Mayo Clinic Analysis
A group from the Mayo Clinic reviewed tattoo ink adverse reaction reports in the FDA’s database from 2004 to 2016. Their analysis showed:
- Black ink accounted for only 11% of reported reactions despite being the most common color.
- Blue and purple inks made up 33% of reactions.
- Reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and pinks accounted for 22%.
They concluded black ink was associated with significantly fewer reported adverse reactions.
|Key Findings on Black Ink
|Key Findings on Color Inks
|– Lower PAHs and metals than colors
|– Higher PAHs and metals detected
|– Lower detections of contaminants
|– More frequent contamination found
|– Only 11% of adverse reactions
|– 33% or more reactions for each bright color
Overall, these studies consistently show black ink has a lower occurrence of potentially toxic elements and adverse health reactions compared to brightly colored inks.
Tips for Safer Tattoos
While black tattoo ink seems to be the safest choice, there are some other tips to keep in mind for minimizing health risks with any tattoo:
- Go with carbon or iron oxide-based black inks – Avoid black inks with logwood extract, which may cause photosensitivity.
- Avoid bright reds and oranges – These use pigments most contaminated with heavy metals and degradation products.
- Research your artist – Make sure they follow proper sanitation and hygiene practices to avoid infections.
- Have bloodwork done beforehand – This can screen for any sensitivities or allergies to specific tattoo pigments.
- Start small – Get a tiny design first to test your reaction before getting a large-scale tattoo.
Following these tips and opting for black ink when possible can help you get a tattoo you love while minimizing any associated health risks.
While no tattoo ink is 100% risk-free, studies consistently show black tattoo ink made with carbon black or iron oxide pigments has a lower incidence of dangerous contaminants and adverse reactions compared to brighter colored inks. Colored inks, especially azo-based reds, oranges, and yellows, are more likely to contain heavy metals, degradation byproducts, and sensitizing agents.
If you’re considering a tattoo, going with a black ink design will be the safest option. Additionally, thoroughly researching your tattoo artist, getting pre-tattoo bloodwork, and starting small are other ways you can reduce the risks associated with any tattoo. While colored designs are trendy, the science indicates basic black is still best when it comes to tattoo ink safety.