Tattoo Ink 101

What happens when tattoo ink goes into your body?

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How is the tattoo applied, and how do people react to tattoo ink over time?


Getting a tattoo is permanent, and has some serious implications that you may want to be aware of. While most of the risks are very minimal or even unlikely - here are some things you should know about the inks used in tattooing and how they are applied to your skin.


How far down does the ink go into my skin?


Tattoo artists use their skill to apply ink three layers deep into your skin. You have seven layers of skin tissue. By applying the tattoo ink to the skin cells three layers down, the tattoo can remain permanent without causing scar tissue. This also prevents the tattoo from falling out as the top two layers of your skin are constantly regenerating.


Tattoos that are too high up will fade quickly, and often will seem to practically disappear as your skin heals in the first two weeks. If this happens to you it is not a tragedy. You can always tattoo the area again after it is healed and aim for a slightly lower layer.


Most tattoo artists are happy to touch up a tattoo that has lightened due to being placed too high up in your skin. There are some exceptions to this rule that you can read about in future posts on Wrist Tattoos, Ankle and Foot Tattoos, and Hand and Finger Tattoos. Other spots that are difficult to gauge the proper depth include elbows and knees. Tattoos placed there may not be guaranteed by your artist, and you may have to pay each time you rework those tattoos.


Tattoos that are placed too deeply into the skin cause scarring. This is why some tattoos are raised while others feel just like your normal skin. Scarring cannot be reversed, so you are best off with an artist who has a great record of tattooing, and who would rather err on the side of caution by tattooing too lightly than too deeply.


Can I be allergic to some inks but not others?


Yes. The most common allergies I have seen are to reds and to blues. I once met a man who healed his tattoo perfectly, but all of the yellow was completely missing after the heal.


Being allergic to a specific color of ink can do with the ingredients used for the pigment, or for the base. If you know you are allergic to certain metals or organic materials make sure your artist knows this! Then they can review the materials in each tattoo ink to make sure that you won’t end up with a swollen and irritated tattoo.


If I have never had a problem with being tattooed, can I develop an allergy to the same tattoo inks later on?


Sadly, this is true. Even though you may have several hours of tattoos already healed to perfection on your body, spontaneous allergies can develop. The good news is that once a tattoo is healed, that tattoo will probably not reject any ink even if you suddenly develop a reaction to that same color ink in the new tattoo. I personally don’t know of any cases of a prior tattoo suddenly rejecting color after a new tattoo has a reaction.


Where does all the ink go when my tattoo fades or ages?


Our skin is pretty amazing, and our skin cells hold the tattoo ink in tiny pockets within each cell. Think of it as a casing that holds the tattoo ink in its place within each cell.


As you get older, your skin cells have to regenerate as old cells die. With each splitting of a cell to create a new one, a small fraction of your tattoo ink moves to another location in the new cell. Over time, this causes the tattoo to “spread.” That’s why tattoos that are 50 years old look really faded and their edges are no longer crisp and tight.


Fading is the result of the tattoo ink either spreading into more or new cells over time, or can be a result of ink loss through chemical reaction. The sun has the ability to break down pigments with long exposure. So a tattoo that has been in the sun a lot will fade faster than a tattoo that is kept covered when outdoors.


If the tattoo inks break down in your body, they cease to be the same substance that they once were. Your body absorbs and eliminates the unwanted or non-useful material through your lymph system. This is what happens when people use laser tattoo removal.


Which tattoo inks are more likely to cause an allergic reaction?


Tattoo inks that use organic ingredients are likely culprits for an allergic reaction. Many people are allergic to various plant matter than are allergic to metals. And, organic tattoo pigments have a higher likelihood to react with your chemistry than traditional tattoo inks that simply used a heavy metal like cobalt and mixed it with water. Your body can recognize and encapsulate that foreign material easily, but a pigment composed of plant matter might set your system off quite quickly.


Fortunately, allergic reactions are not common, and are rarely severe.


What happens in an allergic reaction to tattoo ink?


In most cases, an allergic reaction to a tattoo pigment will result in an irritated and itchy tattoo that takes a month to heal instead of two weeks to heal. Scabbing will be more common in a tattoo that is experiencing an allergic reaction.


If one color in your tattoo seems to be scabbing up while the rest of the tattoo is healing very well, this can be evidence of an allergic reaction to the tattoo. Once the tattoo is healed, if that color is very faded, you may wish to consult with your artist to come up with an alternative ink for future sessions.


NOTE: I am not a doctor, nor a dermatologist. When in doubt, please seek medical attention and advice. If you are in pain or experiencing symptoms that give you concern, it is always best to seek immediate medical attention.


Is there a special tattoo ink that can cover my scars?


There is no special ink specifically made for tattooing over scars that I am aware of. Most tattoo artists will use the same inks they always use when working over scarred skin. Scars have special needs when it comes to tattooing. You can read more about this in the future post, Can I Cover My Scar With a Tattoo?


How much ink gets into my skin during a tattoo?


You may have noticed that tattooing can be pretty messy, with lots of smearing of ink. The truth is, very little ink actually gets placed in your skin. The vast majority of the ink pools up on top of your skin and needs to be wiped away.


Tattooing is not an injection. The needles are poking holes into your skin, and the ink that is stored in the ink-well section of the tattoo tube run down the needles into the hole. As the needle raises back up, a very small amount of pigment is left behind, to be encased and healed into the skin cell.


The top layers of your skin will seem to hold a lot of very bright color. As your tattoo heals, these top two layers of skin will peel off, and the ink that was stuck in those cells will come off with it.


Do certain colors of tattoo ink hurt more than others?


Because the process of applying the ink to your skin is the same no matter what color you are putting into it, my answer is no. But if you asked my manager, Lari, he’d tell you that white always hurts the most. That’s because it’s always the last color we put into tattoos for final highlights. So I suppose, the last color you use is always the most painful, because you know you are almost done!


Should I get black light tattoos?


This is going to be a matter of personal preference. I personally do not recommend black light tattoos because the inks haven’t been in production long enough to know what they might do to our bodies over time.


Tattoo inks have never caused a death or cancer as far as I know. And traditional tattoo inks in the past have always had heavy metals in them. So, it is possible that the heavy metals that react to a black light are also fine to be used in tattoos.


In the end, use your own judgement. If you really want a black light tattoo, find an artist who will be happy to give one to you. If you do, keep in mind that because you really only see these colors under a black light, it is very difficult to get a consistent looking tattoo in normal tattooing conditions.


In my tattoo studio, we are well-lit so that both the artists and the clients can see easily and keep the working stations and themselves clean and safe. A black light tattoo will of necessity require darkness with a black light as your light source. This is another reason I have avoided offering black light tattoos at my studio.

Want more information?  Check out an article on Tattoo Ink Chemistry on About.com for more insight into tattoo inks and what they are made of.


Hopefully, all of your questions have been answered about tattoo inks by now. If you would like to learn more about tattoo ink, you can check out Wiki's Tattoo Ink page. Or, please contact me with your question and I will see about adding some topics to this page to help you out!

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