What is tattoo ink made from?

Tattoo ink is made from dirt and ashes?

Well this is only kinda true, the first tattoo "inks" were dirt or ashes packed into scares to create tribal markings and although we have a few more colours than soot and dirt, it's the same basic idea.

Tattoo inks today are made from pigments and a carrier solution used to suspend the pigment.

There is a range of pigments used to make the every growing array of coloured inks. Basically these pigments fall into the groups of metal salts, vegetable based pigments and some plastic based pigments.

Here is some of the pigments that could be used in the inks at your local tattoo shop:

Compostion of Tattoo Pigments



 Black Iron Oxide (Fe3O4)

Iron Oxide (FeO)



Natural black pigment is made from magnetite
crystals, powdered jet, wustite, bone black,and amorphous carbon
from combustion (soot). Black pigment is commonly made into India ink.

Logwood is a heartwood extract from Haematoxylon
, found in Central America and the West Indies.

 Brown Ochre Ochre is composed of iron (ferric) oxides mixed with clay.
Raw ochre is yellowish. When dehydrated through heating, ochre changes to a reddish color.
 Red Cinnabar (HgS)

Cadmium Red (CdSe)

Iron Oxide (Fe2O3)

Napthol-AS pigment

Iron oxide is also known as common rust. Cinnabar and cadmium pigments are highly toxic. Napthol reds are synthesized from Naptha. Fewer reactions have been reported with naphthol red than the other pigments, but all reds carry risks of allergic or other reactions.
 Orange disazodiarylide and/or disazopyrazolone


The organics are formed from the condensation of 2 monoazo pigment molecules. They are large molecules with good thermal stability and colorfastness.
 Flesh Ochres (iron oxides mixed with clay)  
 Yellow Cadmium Yellow (CdS, CdZnS)


Curcuma Yellow

Chrome Yellow (PbCrO4, often mixed
with PbS)


Curcuma is derived from plants of the ginger
family; aka tumeric or curcurmin. Reactions are commonly associated with yellow pigments, in part because more pigment is needed to achieve a bright color.
 Green Chromium Oxide (Cr2O3), called Casalis Green or Anadomis Green

Malachite [Cu2(CO3)(OH)2]

Ferrocyanides and Ferricyanides

Lead chromate

Monoazo pigment

Cu/Al phthalocyanine

Cu phthalocyanine

The greens often include admixtures, such as potassium
ferrocyanide (yellow or red) and ferric ferrocyanide (Prussian Blue)
 Blue Azure Blue

Cobalt Blue


Blue pigments from minerals include copper (II)
carbonate (azurite), sodium aluminum silicate (lapis lazuli), calcium copper silicate (Egyptian Blue), other cobalt aluminum oxides and chromium oxides. The safest blues and greens are copper salts, such as copper pthalocyanine. Copper pthalocyanine pigments have FDA approval for use in infant furniture and toys and contact lenses. The copper-based pigments are considerably safer or more stable than cobalt or ultramarine pigments.
 Violet Manganese Violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)

Various aluminum salts



Some of the purples, especially the bright magentas, are photoreactive and lose their color after prolonged exposure to light. Dioxazine and carbazole result in the most stable purple pigments.
 White Lead White (Lead Carbonate)

Titanium dioxide (TiO2)

Barium Sulfate (BaSO4)

Zinc Oxide

Some white pigments are derived from anatase or rutile. White pigment may be used alone or to dilute the intensity of other pigments. Titanium oxides are one of the least reactive white pigments.

So that's a bit of a list of some of the pigments used, which just leaves the carrier solution which acts as a solvent for the pigment and carries the ink evenly mixed (and free of pathogens).

Well this can be made from a variety of ingredients with the most typical solvent being ethylalcohol or water, but denatured alcohols, methanol, rubbing alcohol, propylene glycol, and
glycerine have also been used. Back in the day tattoo artist would buy dry pigment and mix with their own carrier solution but this is no longer very common. It's easier and arguably safer to buy from a trusted supplier who tests each batch of inks to guarantee that the inks are safe.

There is lots of suppliers out there and each colour from each supplier could contain different ingredients or different combinations. So how do you know what you are putting into your body?

I guess in someway you can't as the manufactures don't legally have to tell you. But that said the more industry leading premium brands which have stood the test of time are the ones you want to go with.

And it's probably worth avoiding the notoriously risky neon or glow in the dark pigments - some may be safe, but others are known to be radioactive or otherwise toxic.

Bottom line is it's good to ask your tattoo artist about the inks he uses and that's if you ask me a good reason to go black and grey as I use the one black ink from:

Intenze Ink which has been around for 20 years and they are always pushing the safety side as much as the quality which is why I use it.

A few quick notes:

  • You can do a spot test on your skin with the ink you are going to use
  • You can find out more about specific inks by emailing the company