Big Decisions

What to Know about Tattoos Before You Commit

Wear your heart (not toxics) on your sleeve

Tattoos are an ever favorite way for people to wear their heart on their sleeve, literally. No matter what the design, they are a commitment to something that has meaning to you or a way of expressing your unique sense of style. While you've been preparing to get the perfect design, we did some research to help make sure you are staying safe from toxics in your tattoo.

Let's start by recognizing that tattoos have been around throughout a variety of cultures for thousands of years. So, they probably aren't causing immediate harm to people. Trust me, the Mayans of old would have figured out if tattoos were making people so sick it was a problem. So, chances are, in the grand scheme of things, the amount of toxic substances you are absorbing from tattoos (if any) is probably pretty small. The most common negative reaction to tattoos is an allergic skin reaction to the pigment.


That being said, the biggest worry we came across about tattoos comes from what goes into the pigment that is being placed deep into the layers of your skin using a needle. We are going to assume you have done your research on finding a tattoo parlour that only uses clean needles and is diligent about sanitizing their supplies, so we are going to skip over that stuff.

If you are serious about getting a tattoo, you probably already know this, but tattoos work by the artist using a needle to inject pigment (also called dye or ink) into the deeper layers of your skin. They are permanent because the ink gets into those deep layers of skin that don't slough off when you shower with a loofa. However, your skin is an organ, just like any other in your body. While it is on the outside instead of the inside, and it's pretty tough, you can definitely absorb things through your skin like prescription medicines and even caffeine.

Especially for colored tattoos, many of the dyes and pigments used to get bright colors that last are from heavy metals that we warn against in many other forms. For example, yellow pigments often use cadmium, blue often uses cobalt, and many other colors use iron. Some colors, depending on the manufacturer use lead - that's a little alarming.

What we learn from this is to be careful when choosing your design. Think about colors and talk to your tattoo artist about the inks they use before you commit. See if they can tell you a little bit more about the products they buy and try to find out what is making the color. Don't get frustrated if they can't tell you, it's not usually their fault. Brands that create the pigments are not required to tell you (or the tattoo artist) what is in their products.

In general, from the lists we could find, red is often the worst in terms of containing heavy metals. Blues that are copper based are safer than blues made with other chemicals. Talk to your artist about what black they use, and choose one that you are comfortable with. Some are made of bone while others are made of wood. Both have benefits and drawbacks.

The bottom line is that tattoo pigments haven't changed too much over the years if we are still using cobalt, wood, and bone to make different colors. So, think about your design, and weigh your concerns about the different colors you are thinking about. If you really wanted something red, maybe consider just an outline instead, or consider making it smaller than initially intended. But this is about you representing yourself - so do you (just a slightly more informed version of you).

If you want to know more, check out some of these articles. Scientific American talks more about heavy metals, The Smithsonian talks about the history of tattoos, NonToxic Revolution talks more about how each color may be derived, and in Chemistry talks more about, you guessed it, the chemistry of tattoos.

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