Whilst I don’t have any tattoos myself, the question of ethical tattooing was posed to me recently and I found myself wondering. Tattoos are more popular than ever before, and I imagine that at least a few of my readers have or would like some form of inked adornment. So, after some serious research, here I am to give you as much lowdown as I can find on the ethics and options behind these works of body art.
The largest issue surrounding tattoos is the ink itself. Tattoo ink is made by mixing pigments with a carrier. The pigment gives the ink its colour and is usually derived from metals or plants, whilst the carrier keeps the ink sanitary and evenly mixed whilst also aiding with its actual application. In the USA standard tattoo inks aren’t regulated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration, with many ink pigments being industrial strength colours that can be used for printer ink or automobile paint. The American Academy of Dermatology goes into detail on traditional tattoo ink’s ingredient lists:
“Tattoo pigments may contain industrial organic pigments, including azo and polycyclic compounds, sandalwood and brazilwood, as well as aluminum, cadmium, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, silica, sulphur, titanium dioxide and barium sulphate, each of which may be the cause of a skin reaction like a rash or be toxic.”
Similarly in the UK, The Guardian says
‘According to European Commission warnings, many inks used in tattoo parlours contain heavy metals (red pigments notably include cadmium, one of the three most toxic metals) and plastic. One EC report likens them to industrial paints and then asks: “Would you inject car paint into your skin?”‘
Tattoo inks can also contain a variety of other heavy metals to create colour, including lead, chromium, arsenic, beryllium, antimony, nickel, and cobalt, none of which are particularly nice. If you’re vegan or vegetarian you also want to watch out, as some inks can contain products such as animal bones and shellac from beetles. More thorough tattoo artists mix their own ink, and they will be able to tell you what carriers and pigments are used. When it comes to carriers vegetable glycerin, purified water, witch hazel and ethanol are your best bets for non-toxic options (glycerin can also be made with animal products, for tattoos it’s often plant-based, but it’s best to check).
And here are your best options when it comes to ink:
Red – the worst offender for pigments, having caused the most allergic reactions in people and being most associated with sensitivity issues. It has been known to potentially contain mercury or cadmium, both of which are toxic.
The safest reds are made with naphthol pigments, as they’ve had the fewest bad reactions.
Blue/Green – copper pthalocyanine pigments are the safest to use, monoazo is best for green, and for blue, try sodium based inks.
Yellow – arylide or turmeric based inks are safest, but too much yellow can burn or scar skin.
Purple – avoid manganese violet, which is considered an environmental toxin. Dioxazine or carbazole are the safest pigments for purple.
White – titanium dioxide or zinc.
Black – This is the biggie when it comes to animal products. A lot of black is ‘bone black’, often called ‘India ink’, which is made with charred animal bone and may contain shellac. Instead, black made from magnetite crystals, jet, and logwood are vegan friendly.
Also, neon colors are often less safe than normal ones as they often require the use of plastics and more chemicals.
Essentially, if you’re vegan or vegetarian it’s best to find a tattoo artist that mixes their own inks and then talk to them about the carriers and pigments they use. Nowadays more tattoo parlours are opening that are fully vegan, you can check out UK vegan friendly tattoo studios here, American studios here, and a list of vegan friendly inks here that you could ask to be ordered for you. The list of studios is small, but I have a feeling more of these will start popping up in the coming years.
If you’re just generally concerned you can ask to see the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each of the pigments or carriers. These will tell you about the safety and basic health information on each substance, so if there’s anything your particularly want to be careful about this will help.
Green soaps are used to clean a client’s skin before, during and after tattooing. These soaps can again contain glycerin which may be derived from either plant material or obtained from animal fats. In the case of tattoo soap it is usually plant based, but this may be something you want to check just in case. Both Dr Bronner’s lavender soap and H2Ocean’s blue green foam soap are highly recommended alternative options if needed.
Aftercare products are designed to help the healing process whilst preventing infection and colour loss, however many aftercare treatments contain either petroleum (I’m looking at you Vaseline) or animal products, such as beeswax and lanolin. Luckily, there are some alternative options out there. Some of the top recommended ones are:
Basically, tattoos aren’t necessarily the most environmentally friendly or non-toxic thing you can ever do, however there are steps you can take to make your tattoo and after care process a little nicer and a little greener if you want. Hopefully some of this info helped you out, and if you have any other specific things you want me to look into like this, let me know!
Until next time, stay magic y’all.