Are Sharpie Tattoos Safe?

Sharpie Tattoo Safety, Risks, and Removal

Sharpie tattoos
Sharpie tattoos use permanent ink, but you can remove them with alcohol. Joan Vicent Canto Roig / Getty Images

Have you ever wondered whether it's safe to write on yourself with a Sharpie marker or use a Sharpie to make fake tattoos? Would it surprise you to learn some tattoo artists work out a design using Sharpies before inking it?

Sharpie and Your Skin

According to Sharpie's blog, markers that bear the ACMI "non-toxic" seal have been tested and deemed safe for art, even by children, but this does not include body art, such as drawing eyeliner, filling in tattoos or making temporary tattoos.

The company does not recommend using the markers on skin. In order to bear the ACMI seal a product must undergo toxicological testing for the Arts and Creative Materials Institute. The testing is concerned with inhalation and ingestion of the materials and not absorption into the bloodstream, which could occur if chemicals in the marker permeate the skin or enter the body through broken skin.

Sharpie Ingredients

Sharpie pens may contain n-propanol, n-butanol, diacetone alcohol and cresol. Although n-propanol is considered safe enough to be used in cosmetics, the other solvents may cause reactions or other health effects. Sharpie Fine Point Markers are considered safe under normal conditions, including inhalation, skin contact, eye contact, and ingestion.

Three types of Sharpie markers contain xylene (see MSDS), a chemical capable of causing nervous system and organ damage. Only the King Size Sharpie, Magnum Sharpie, and Touch-Up Sharpie contain this chemical.

Inhaling the vapor released by these markers or ingesting their contents can cause injury. However, it's not technically correct to call this "ink poisoning" because the issue is the solvent, not the pigment.

Some tattooist use Sharpies to draw designs on the skin, but at least one professional warns against using the red markers because the ink sometimes causes problems with the healed tattoos, sometimes long after the tattoo has been inked.

Removing a Sharpie Tattoo

For the most part, it's the solvents in the ink of a Sharpie pen that present a health concern more than the pigments, so once you've drawn on yourself and the ink has dried, there is not a lot more risk from the product. It appears reactions to the pigments are uncommon. The pigment only penetrates the top layers of skin, so the ink will wear off within a few days. If you wish to remove the Sharpie ink rather than let it wear off, you can apply mineral oil (e.g., baby oil) to loosen the pigment molecules. Most of the color will wash away with soap and water once the oil has been applied.

Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) will remove Sharpie ink. However, alcohols penetrate skin and may carry undesirable chemicals into the bloodstream. A better choice is grain alcohol (ethanol), such as you might find in hand sanitizer gel. Although ethanol also penetrates intact skin, at least the type of alcohol isn't particularly toxic. Completely avoid using toxic solvents, such as methanol, acetone, benzene, or toluene. They will remove the pigment, but they present a health risk and safer options are readily available.

Sharpie Ink Versus Tattoo Ink

Sharpie ink rests on the skin's surface, so the primary risk comes from solvent getting absorbed into the bloodstream.

Tattoo ink, on the other hand, may pose a risk of ink poisoning from both the pigment and the liquid portion of the ink:

Sharpie Poisoning Key Points

  • There are different formulations for permanent markers, including Sharpie pens. Some are considered nontoxic and safe for use on skin. Others contain toxic solvents that may cause organ damage from inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption.
  • Sharpie Fine Point Markers are the safest pens to use on skin. Even with these pens, it's a good idea to avoid writing on the lips or near the eyes.
  • King Size Sharpie, Magnum Sharpie, and Touch-Up Sharpie contain xylene, which is neurotoxic and may damage other organs. Xylene poses a risk via inhalation, ingestion, and absorption across skin and mucous membranes. Writing on skin with these markers isn't recommended.
  • Sharpie ink may be removed with rubbing alcohol. It's better to use ethanol than isopropyl alcohol because it's less toxic.