What’s In Tattoo Ink, and Why Are Tattoos Permanent?

Dan Wiggins

by Dan Wiggins

7th August 2015

Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison & Theodore Roosevelt. Influential historical figures, political leaders and experts in their respected fields, but do you know what they have in common? It turns out that they all had tattoos. It may come as a surprise that some of the most influential men in history had tattoo’s, especially when even today tattoo’s in some cases are frowned upon and often seen as negative factors of a person’s self-expressionism.

It’s a practice that’s been in human culture for as far back as 5,000 years, seen all across the globe and from the increased amount of tattoos in recent years; it’s clearly not going away any time soon. But do we actually have any idea what is contained in the ink we’re injecting permanently into our skin? Or why it remains permanent? Let me explain. 

Chemicals in Tattoo Ink

Modern tattoo inks usually consist of suspending a dye in a liquid, either water, alcohol, glycerine, sometimes, a mixture of them are used in one ink formation. Generally, the ink dye used is harmless. But in very rare occasions, it has known to cause allergic reactions, infections, and other un-intended damage to the skin, but not to worry, this is usually only the case when proper precautions are not met, which shouldn’t be the case if you get your tattoo done by a certified professional at a health and safety compliant tattoo parlour!

The ingredients in tattoo ink vary massively – it is believed that one bottle of ink from one tattoo studio may be made up of completely different chemicals and elements than an ink of the same colour from a different shop, this could possibly affect the colour of the tattoo, and is a reason a lot of people tend to stick with the same tattoo artist. It eliminates the possibility that two different tattoos of the same colour may appear a different tone. Black inks are usually carbon oxides, while blue inks are obtained with copper salts or cobalt oxides. White may be titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or lead carbonate.

A person getting a tattoo on the inside of his forearm

A photograph I took from Manchester Tattoo Convention 2015 earlier this year.

Why are tattoos permanent?

A tattoo gun works by injecting a solid needle carrying ink which it deposits into the skin. A modern tattoo machine injects the skin between 50 and 3,000 times a minute. The insoluble ink is deposited into the body every time the needle punctures the skin. It’s a known fact that we shed our skin cells up to 1 million times a day, so why doesn’t a tattoo disappear along with the dead skin cells? That’s because the ink is injected deeper than the outer most layer of our skin, called the Epidermis.

Tattoo guns push through the Epidermis and penetrate the next layer of skin, the Dermis, this layer of skin consists of collagen fibres, nerves, glands and blood vessels (to name a few). The dermis layer doesn’t doesn’t shed its cells, However, the cells do die – and that’s one of the reasons tattoos are permanent! You see, when the tattoo gun punctures the skin, it triggers a signal to your body that sends specialised cells called macrophages to the area of your skin that has been punctured by the tattoo needle, this is called the inflammatory process. These cells are sent to the ‘wound site’ in an attempt to rid the body of the alien pigments being injected into the skin. They essentially attempt to eat the ink dye, and some of the macrophages carry dye pigments back through the lymphatic system in to the lymph nodes. Whereas, some of the macrophages remain in the dermis, and with no way of disposing of the pigment, they remain permanently visible through the skin.

Anybody who’s had a tattoo will know that for the first two weeks after you get your ink, it goes through multiple stages. Initially, it’s red and tender, but what do you expect? You’ve just had a needle injected into your arm at over 2,000 punctures per minute! You’ll then notice the scabbing stage, when your tattoo feels like its shedding and crumbling from your arm – that’s because the ink is still injected into the epidermis (the top layer of your skin) and the tattoo ink comes away from the dead skin cells, just as the skin does. Once that top layer has completely shredded, you’ll have a permanent tattoo visible for the rest of your life. That, of course, unless you decide to get your tattoo removed via laser, which is always an option.

Can tattoos be removed?

For this, you’ll have to wait and find out for part two of the blog post, in which I will outline the details of tattoo laser removal and the complications it can bring. I’d recommend subscribing to our newsletter so you never miss a post. Here you go, I’ve made it easier to subscribe by inserting our sign-up form just below. We never send spam, so don’t let that unnerve you.

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I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please, don’t forget to share this post on Facebook & Twitter. Even if you don’t have tattoos, I’m sure you know somebody who does, and they might find this article extremely interesting. 


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