The Chemistry of Tattoo Inks

About 12% of Europeans and 24% of Americans have tattoos.

In Italy tattoos are prohibited under 18 years of age by the law and allowed no earlier than 14 with the informed consent of the parents. However, there is no real regulatory framework. It is only indicated that tattoos must be made with the appropriate hygiene and health requirements and by qualified and authorized tattoo artists. There are no regulations on inks, so their composition is not always clear.

source: Pexels

The two main components of tattoo inks are carriers and colorants.

Carriers are solvents, such as ethanol and distilled water, that help the penetration of colorants under the upper layer of the skin. Isopropyl alcohol (known as antifreeze) and glycerol are also used.

The colorants are inks. Several studies have found 100 different types, which are deposited in the derma. Once colored pigments containing metals were used in inks: cinnabar (mercuric sulfur) for bright red tones or chromium oxide for greens. Fortunately today they are no longer used in colorant composition because of their certain toxicity.

Today inks are made of organic pigments: from the azo pigments (in 60% of tattoos), azo-compounds characterized by one or more N=N bonds used industrially to color the skins, to get red, yellow and orange, to phthalocyanine dyes, a water-soluble heterocyclic compound, for shades of blue and green. In particular, azo-dyes decompose to primary aromatic amines, classified as carcinogenic, by bacterial action or exposure to solar UV rays.

Ultil today there has been concern about reactions or the possibility of infection after a tattoo session. Now we are beginning to worry about the fact that ink components may be harmful, particularly for their impurities. The presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), essentially made of two or more condensed aromatic rings – such as benzo-α-pyrene, which is found mainly in black inks – is a cause for concern as it is a known carcinogen, even though there’s still no scientific evidence for tattoos.

Other components suspected of having an adverse effect on health are preservatives, that contains formaldehyde (carcinogenic), and antiseptics such as benzoisothiazolinone, which can cause skin irritation. Finally, a negative effect of titanium dioxide, often mixed with inks to create certain shades, has been highlighted because of its white colour. In fact, synchrotron studies conducted in Germany and France have shown that titanium dioxide penetrates the epidermal tissue and then migrates to the lymph nodes in form of nanoparticles enlarging them with bad consequences for health.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is working on legislation to restrict over 4000 chemicals that can be used in tattoo inks.

ACTIVITY: Research biocompatible and biodegradable tattoo inks and create a PowerPoint presentation detailing the benefits of these substances.

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