Tattoo Ink Carrier Chemistry

The Liquid Part of Tattoo Ink

Tattoo ink safety is as much about the liquid as it is about the pigment.
Tattoo ink safety is as much about the liquid as it is about the pigment. Wade Griffith / Getty Images

Tattoo ink consists of pigment and a carrier. The carrier may be a single substance or a mixture. The purpose of the carrier is to keep the pigment evenly distributed in a fluid matrix, to inhibit the growth of pathogens, to prevent clumping of pigment, and to aid in application to the skin. Among the safest and most common ingredients used to make the liquid are:

  • ethyl alcohol (ethanol)
  • purified water
  • witch hazel
  • Listerine
  • propylene glycol
  • glycerine (glycerol)

However, many other substances have been and may be used, including:

  • denatured alcohols (are toxic and can burn the skin)
  • other alcohols (methyl alcohol or methanol and isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol are commonly used, although they are toxic)
  • ethylene glycol (antifreeze, which is toxic)
  • aldehydes, such as formaldehyde and gluteraldehyde (highly toxic)
  • various surfactants or detergents

There are many other substances that could be found in an ink. A tattooist has the choice of mixing his or her own ink (mixing dry dispersed pigment and a carrier solution) or purchasing what are called predispersed pigments. Many predispersed pigments are as safe or safer than inks mixed by the tattooist. However, the ingredient list need not be disclosed, so any chemical could be present in the ink. The best advice is to make sure the ink supplier and the particular ink has a long history of safety. Although I have applied the word 'toxic' to many substances listed on the pigment and carrier list, that is an oversimplification. Some of these chemicals are mutagens, carcinogens, teratogens, toxins, or else they participate in other reactions in the body, some of which may not show up for decades.


  • Antal, A.S.; Hanneken, S.; Neumann, N.J.; et al. (2008). "Erhebliche zeitliche Variationsbreite von Komplikationen nach Tätowierungen". Der Hautarzt. 59 (10): 769–71. doi:10.1007/s00105-008-1631-y
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Tattoo Ink Carrier Chemistry." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, September 7). Tattoo Ink Carrier Chemistry. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Tattoo Ink Carrier Chemistry." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 25, 2021).