Tattoo you? Unregulated ink should put greenies and vegans on toxin alert

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Several of my friends have gotten inked throughout the years – all for distinctly different reasons. Whether to honor their inner rock star, defy their pedestrian upbringing, dive head-first into the elite cool-club status or some variation therein, they’ve all shared one thing in common – they’ve all braved the chair and that scary, buzzing, bloody needle.

I’ve become somewhat of an unintentional rebel for willingly retaining the alabaster canvas that Mother Nature gave me – but truth be told, any sharp, shiny, metallic ink-delivery system designed to puncture the deeper layers of my dermis instantly becomes my arch enemy....and by that, I mean that I instinctually run far, far away. In my world, needles are best left for holy sock repairs, torn shirts and buttons that have jumped ship.

In spite of my needle phobia, I take my hat off to those who have undergone the transformation. I realize that it is a very personal decision that ultimately commemorates a certain mindset, a particular event, and even a distinctive point along the journey of one’s life. But, what if the pigments used to bestow your old-school Milli Vanilli tattoo with its vibrancy are a modern-day greenies’ worst nightmare?

Despite the sea of tattooed people already out there and countless newbies lining up as I type these words, most are unaware of the fact that inks and their pigments have never been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s only quite recently that the FDA has begun to launch several long-overdue studies (estimated to take several years) that will hone in on the potential safety risks associated with tattoo inks, focusing specifically on the following:


If the name rings a bell, you may have noticed this common preservative in your favorite eye drops or contact lens solution. Normally used to kill the bacteria and fungus that may be present in countless vaccinations, medicines and over-the-counter preparations, thimerosal happens to be great at preserving tattoo inks, too. Unfortunately, this organic element also happens to contain mercury, which is a neurotoxin capable of harming the central nervous system.


Amazingly, tattoo inks have never been approved by the government as safe for humans – these are the very same pigments commonly used to tint automobiles and printers’ ink. Scientists have in fact found that over time, pigment does migrate from the tattooed area to the lymph nodes, potentially leading to health risks down the road – but they’re not yet sure precisely what those issues could be. What they are certain of is that many of the common ingredients in those pigments have been officially been linked to birth defects and cancer.


Well, it depends on the manufacturer or tattoo artist, but generally speaking, tattoo ink consists of a color (either a toxic metal salt or plastic) suspended in a carrier fluid (a combination of animal-based glycerin and/or formaldehyde, propylene glycol, vodka, witch hazel, Listerine, anti-freeze, etc.). Metal salt pigments literally are metals that have oxidized to produce a color change. If you're pining away for a glow-in-the-dark tattoo, then get ready for plastic-based-ink to be deposited under your skin.

White ink is generally lead-based carbonate or zinc oxide, while green pigment consists of lead chromate which is profoundly toxic and a known carcinogen. Crimson ink is commonly made out of iron oxide, cadmium red and/or cinnabar – also highly toxic. The American Environmental Safety Institute claims that an average sized tattoo (3 inches by 5 inches) contains 1.23 micrograms of lead!!


Black pigments, derived from kerosene soot and burned animal bones, are considered to pose minimal health risks...that is if you don’t mind walking around with charred critter remains under your skin for an indefinite period of time. While you can even try your hand at making your own DIY black pigment using India ink from an art store, be forewarned that while many modern versions are made with burned wood and/or resin, some are still made with read the label. If venturing beyond typical black and into the rainbow spectrum is more your style, you might be happy to learn that blue and green copper salt pigments, purple dioxazine/carbazole pigments, and brown iron oxide pigments are all believed to be relatively safe.

Live Strong offers a thorough article covering the top non-toxic tattoo ink ingredients, but if you're really concerned about what is being injected under your skin, your first line of defense should be to seek out a trusted tattoo artist who embraces safer alternatives and is transparent about what ingredients they are using.'s your skin -- get informed and speak up! For all of the sissies out there (like me) who are tempted to brand themselves yet don't relish the idea of submitting to pain or chemical poison, FDA-approved bINK’d temporary tattoo earrings made with vegetable-based inks might be right up your alley ;)

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.


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