Are Tattoos Healthy?

Tattoos have become a taboo word in the health industry over the years, and for good reason.

Many of the older inks would use chemicals, including heavy metals, which are known to be toxic in humans. There is also very little regulation over the ink industry, and essentially any form of ink could be used (some people have reportedly even used printer ink).

Person getting a tattoo

In my own quest to get a tattoo, I wanted to make sure that I could get one in the healthiest manner possible.

Of course, a tattoo in and of itself is never going to be ‘healthy’ - if that is what you want to find out, there is no need to read the rest of this page.

Where a tattoo does fit into healthy living (in my opinion) is when it acts a reminder of something important, or when it just makes you feel better in your skin.

For example, my first tattoo on my left arm represents a principle of manifestation, that “Your Past Doesn’t Equal Your Future.”

Tattoo image 1

Through it I am constantly reminded that I can create any future I want, regardless of past experiences.

My second and third tattoos are around my favourite philosophy, stoicism.

On the back of my right elbow, I have “MEMENTO MORI”, which means “Remember that you must die”.

tattoo image 2

This is not something to be sad about, but rather the stoics would use this reminder as a way to invigorate their lives.

As Marcus Aurelius states,

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Which brings me to my third (and final) tattoo; on my right forearm is the face of Marcus Aurelius.

Tattoo image 3

This again is a tribute to my love of stoicism, but in all honesty, the best reason for this one is that it makes me look good naked ;)

In the end, you will need to balance the pros and cons of getting a tattoo in your decision-making process. For the remainder of this blog, I am going to share the information you need to ensure that there are very little to no cons.

Table of contents 

  1. Ink ingredients/colours
  2. The tests the inks go through (carbons, amines etc.)
  3. Sourcing ink
  4. Finding an artist
  5. Your light diet after getting a tattoo (healing phase, aftercare protecting your ink)

Ink ingredients

The FDA classifies tattoo inks as cosmetic products. As such, they do not regulate any of the ingredients found within them, and most inks are not put through any safety tests.

Although many of the older inks were known to include heavy metals, the newer inks are (mostly) a healthier alternative.

A simple tattoo ink should contain a carrier (such as glycerin, water, isopropyl alcohol or witch hazel) and a colorant (depending on the ink colour)

For a simple black ink this could be: Acrylic resin, glycerin, pigment black, witch hazel, isopropyl alcohol and water.

With colour inks, it gets a little more tricky. Even the ‘vegan-based’ inks will use some questionable ingredients for their colours.

For example, colour inks are known to contain: 

  • White: Titanium dioxide
  • Red: Pigment red 210
  • Yellow: Titanium oxide, pigment yellow 65
  • Blue: titanium dioxide, pigment blue 15

As you can already see, keeping to a simple black tattoo is the best choice if you want to reduce the chance that the ink has any harmful substances in it, be it vegan or not.

Safety tests

As already mentioned, tattoo inks are not regulated by any governing body. For this reason, it is essential that you pick an ink company that does extensive 3rd party testing on their inks. You also need to be aware that some inks will do a few tests, but that's not to say they are very comprehensive.

Sticking with black inks, below are some of the tests which are found in the comprehensive testing by Intenze on their “True Black” ink:

*I am in no way affiliated with Intenze, they just happen to be the only ink company I could find with this much testing*

Safety Data (by MSDS and SDS sheets)

Safety test

The True Black lists all their ingredients within their Safety Data sheets, and all these are passed as non-toxic and non-carconigenic to humans.

Carc

Heavy metals

 Heavy metals

True Black ink undergoes testing for a long list of heavy metals including mercury, copper, selenium, and lead.

Testing for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)

Although almost all vegan inks will list ‘carbon’ as their colour ingredient, however, it's worth noting that not all carbon sources are the same. The presence of PAHs within the carbon can pose a risk to humans, and Intenze goes the extra step to test their black ink for this.

Heavy metals

(Note: I have not found a single other ink company that does this test, and this was actually my reason for picking Intenze over other ink companies)

Sterilization

Intenze were the first company to offer a sterilisation certification on their inks, reducing the chances that you could have an adverse reaction to any contaminants from their inks.

To see more testing done by Intenze on their inks, click here.

Sourcing Ink

Unfortunately, many of the common inks have a variety of fakes on the market.

Fake ink

These knockoffs are guaranteed to be a different list of ingredients, which of course poses greater health risks to you.

In order to make sure that you or your artist are getting genuine inks, always see if the ink company lists their registered suppliers.

You can find the Intenze suppliers at the link below: https://intenzetattooink.com/pages/store-locator

Finding an artist

This is likely going to be the hardest part of your tattoo journey.

If you are lucky enough, you might be able to find an artist who already uses the ink you want. This could be done by asking your local artists, or even contacting the local supplier and asking them which artists stock the ink you are after.

Tattoo parlour

Unfortunately, this won’t always be the case, and you may find an artist you really want to work with, but uses a different ink.

Now this is extremely important, and I learnt this the hard way:

If you need to ask an artist if they will use a different ink, DO NOT SAY IT IS FOR HEALTH REASONS!

Remember, they use a different ink with their customers every day, and likely have a good amount of that ink in their own body.

They do not want some smart arse coming into their studio and telling them that what they are doing is harmful to anyone.

More importantly, the bond between the artist is a crucial factor. The process of getting the tattoo should be a fun one, and you don’t want any negative vibes in the air.

Instead, you need to use another reasoning to justify it. If you don’t have any creative ones off the top of your head, here are a few: 

  • (if you already have tattoos) “I already have tattoos with this ink, so I want to stick with the same ink so they age the same.”
  • “My friend Nick got a tattoo with this ink and I love the way it turned out for him/her. I want to ensure mine heals the same way.”
  • “I am very prone to allergic reactions, and my friend who has several tattoos said that this specific ink was the only one they didn’t react to.”

Your light diet after getting a tattoo

(1) During the healing process

Once you have your tattoo you will be strongly advised to avoid sunlight exposure. This is because the tattoo process creates an open wound, and any excessive UV light exposure can cause your tattoo to heal badly.

Man sitting in front of red light therapy device

During this time, you should keep your tattoo covered up, and if you do have a red light therapy device, increase your sessions on other areas of your body to ensure you still get a healthy amount of red and infrared light.

 (2) After your tattoo is healed

Once your tattoo is completely healed, you will be able to get sun exposure again, but this can also cause your tattoo to fade. A tattoo is for life so you really do want to make sure that you keep it vibrant forever.

While I am firmly against most sunscreens as they contain toxic chemicals, there are healthy alternatives which can be used on your tattoo. A great range of tattoo care products from Lucky13s.

Lucky 13 tattoo products

If you use the code "_nickcoetzee" at checkout you can get 20% off your order (and yes, this one I get a kickback from).

In closing, I just want to remind you that getting a tattoo should be a very personal decision. The ink itself will never be healthy for you, but with the right precautions I believe you can reduce any risks, while having some great positives.