All of us here are ink-lovers, but have you ever wondered – what is ink actually made of? Wonder no more! From ink formulations and government regulations to ancient recipes – and the top ten brands in the market – we’ve got the whole ink story right here! Read on, inkster!
Asking the Right Questions
When choosing to get inked, it is important to assess EVERY. THING. From the artist’s skill and experience, to the machines and needles they use, to the hygiene they practice in their studio – all the way down to which inks they use.
The reason you assess an artist’s skill and technique is to make sure you get the best experience and a really good tattoo.
The reason you assess the ink being used in your tattoo, however, is that the ink is what you leave with when the session is done. It’s what stays in your skin for life. And while good quality ink will give you a high quality tattoo, low quality ink can lead to patchy healing or excessive fading, and in some cases increase the risk of infections.
But why bother asking an artist about their ink? After all, they probably use the best kind anyway. Right?
A good tattoo artist would never use cheap inks because low quality inks degrade the quality of an artist’s work. So yes, an artist would know best – especially if they’re a GOOD artist.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your own research anyway – you’re the one getting the ink poked into your skin! So while the artist knows what’s best for their art to turn out well, you need to know what’s best for your skin.
How Can I Assess the Quality of an Ink?
There are many different ways that the quality of an ink is assessed, ranging from government regulations to ink formulations to where the ink’s ingredients are sourced from, to simply looking up reviews or asking a tattoo artist.
Regulations and Manufacturing Practices
The easiest way to assess an ink is to check whether it complies with the local standards and regulations. Regulations are put in place to monitor the risk of infection and transmission of diseases through unhygienic practices. Put more simply, regulations tell us what is and isn’t safe to use.
Unfortunately, not every region regulates tattoo ink, and even when such regulations exist they tend to differ from one place to another. The tattoo industry generally sources inks from places like Japan, the US, and various places in Europe, which are known to regulate ink more strictly and ensure higher quality in the products released for commercial use.
Thus, it helps to know where your inks come from!
Ingredients and Quality Standards
The next method would be to assess the manufacturing company itself, specifically what ingredients they use in their formulations. Are these tested and proven to be safe for use in tattoo inks? Do these ingredients comply with international standards of safety?
Look up the quality standards local to where the ink is manufactured. For instance, if an ink is manufactured in Europe, it needs to comply with EU standards.
Many brands choose not to reveal their exact formulations, but still comply with the regulations local to where they are manufactured. Check the labeling on the ink bottle and packaging – are they using government-regulated labeling? Regulations require that proper packaging and labeling be used for all products, with the name and address of the manufacturer, an expiration date, conditions of use and warnings, batch identification, list of ingredients, and a guarantee of sterility clearly displayed on the label. Ink regulation also requires that they should be packaged for single use, which means once opened, it can’t be resealed and used later.
Other factors one could assess include whether the ingredients are non-toxic (see below for list of toxic ingredients), and if they are cruelty-free (not tested on animals). If reading labels and researching ingredients isn’t your thing, you can always choose organic inks as these are more likely to be safe for use.
Lucky for us all, most of the top inks in the market are organic – so that saves us the trouble of reading the fine print!
The Final Result
One other way to assess ink is by the result it produces – the tattoo itself. Does this ink usually produce high quality tattoos? Or does it lead to patchy results? Does it maintain its vibrancy after the tattoo heals? Is it safe for sensitive skin types? Look up reviews from both tattoo artists and people that have been tattooed using the ink you’re researching.
Most inks fade over time, but good quality ink fades less. A good artist and proper tattoo care procedures will generally ensure you get a good tattoo, but quality ink ensures your tattoo stays looking good for a long time!
Ask an Artist
The simplest way to find the answers to ALL these questions (without spending a whole weekend on tattoo ink research!) is to simply ask the tattoo artist themselves! After all, they work with these inks on a regular basis and have in-depth knowledge of how the ink works.
Additionally, even if the artist is not using a top brand, it might still be good quality ink that complies with all the necessary standards. Sometimes, an artist’s personal preference can dictate which materials they use. They know which ink to use and what works with their own style and technique. So if you aren’t familiar with inks, it helps to ask the artist themselves why they use the inks they do.
How We Assess Inks
When consulting with clients and recommending the right tattoo studios based on their requirements, we make sure to recommend top artists who use quality materials – especially when it comes to the inks they use.
So how do we assess inks? Here’s our criteria:
- Source: Where the ink is manufactured
- Ingredients: Safe ingredients that are approved for use based on regulations local to where the ink is manufactured
- Longevity: High quality inks that will not spread or fade easily, and maintain their vibrancy for a long time
- Range: Brands that have a wider range of pigments, including inks for darker skin tones and sensitive skin types
- Compatibility: With different styles of tattooing and various tattoo equipment
Source: Where’s it from?
While there is no specific location that is better for sourcing ingredients, some countries have higher manufacturing standards than others. This includes Japan, the United States, and several regions in Europe (such as Italy).
Inks manufactured in these regions are considered the safest for use in tattooing, and brands from these countries always feature in the top ten tattoo inks.
Ingredients: Let’s get chemical!
The next question is – what is ink actually made of?
The consensus is that ink is made from pigments that are suspended in a carrier oil. Simple enough, right? You take a pigment, you take an oil, put them together – and voila! We have ink!
Except it’s not really that simple. When getting down to the specific ingredients in an ink things start to get a little murky (pun intended).
So in order to understand what ink is made of, we must first understand ink itself.
Pigments and Carriers
Pigments are what give the ink its colour. Carriers are responsible for keeping the pigment evenly mixed in a solution and inhibiting the growth of bacteria, among other things.
While pigments are a bit more straightforward, carriers tend to be made from a wider range of ingredients. ThoughtCo lists the safest and most commonly used carrier ingredients as ‘ethyl alcohol (ethanol), purified water, witch hazel, Listerine, propylene glycol, and glycerine (glycerol)’.
These names might not be familiar to most of us (especially those of us that blocked out twelve years of chemistry!), but rest assured – these ingredients are subjected to rigorous testing to ensure their safety in skincare and related products.
Organic Pigments: The way grandma used to make ’em!
The composition of pigments has an interesting history, going back as far as 250,000-200,000 years ago when pigments like ochre were already being used in carvings and art. Originally, pigments were made from ground-up minerals and carbon black.
Ochre is one of the earliest pigments used by humans for a wide range of dyeing, including tattooing, with the solution being comprised of ‘organic dyes, resins, waxes, and minerals’.
Inchemistry states that black ink was made of carbon (carbon black) and iron oxide, reds were made from cinnabar (a mercury sulfide compound), and orange and yellow hues were made from cadmium compounds.
Put simply, our ancestors drew their ink – as well as everything from the tattoo designs to the tattooing techniques – straight from nature.
Modern Inks: The good, the bad, and the toxic
Modern pigments are produced from mineral or industrial pigments, metal salts, vegetable dye, and plastics.
If you happen to be someone that DIDN’T block out your chemistry teacher’s voice – here’s a detailed list of ink compositions for your science-loving mind to nibble on!
The wide range of ingredients used to make modern pigments makes it harder to compare inks and assess their quality. This isn’t to say all modern inks are bad! Modern inks undergo rigorous testing before being released into the market. Additionally, the tattoo industry is constantly researching novel ways to ink.
Specialized Inks: Creating something new
Artists and manufacturers love experimenting with inks, which leads to some really interesting products like UV inks that ‘glow in the dark or are only visible under a blacklight’.
Such inks, however, are currently considered risky on account of multiple cases where customers have experienced a bad reaction to the ink. UV inks are also thinner, harder to work with, and require more specialized inking techniques.
That’s why it’s important to get inked from a highly experienced artist that knows their way around skin and ink. It means you can worry a little less about researching chemistry and spend more time looking up tattoo designs!
Modern Carriers: The dark side
Things start getting darker (ALL. PUNS. INTENDED!) with modern carriers, some of which are made using ingredients like:
- toxic denatured alcohols (which can burn the skin),
- other toxic alcohols (methyl alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, rubbing alcohol, etc.),
- ethylene glycol (also toxic), and
- aldehydes (such as formaldehyde and gluteraldehyde – HIGHLY toxic!)
In addition to the pigments and carriers, tattoo inks sometimes include additives like ‘surfactants, binding agents, fillers, and preservatives’, which are used for similar purposes as carriers – to keep the pigments uniformly distributed in the solution and inhibit the growth of microorganisms (like bacteria), particularly after the product has been opened. These ingredients can cause adverse reactions for some people.
But fret not! The top brands are up there for a reason! They are considered the best in the market because they DON’T use toxic ingredients and use high standards in their manufacturing of inks. That makes them safe for commercial use.
Longevity: Will my tattoo fade?
This one is simple – good inks fade less.
While the quality of a tattoo also depends on the tattoo artist’s skill and technique as well as how well you take care of your new tattoo, good quality ink will not spread much during inking and won’t leak too much while your tattoo is healing. Your tattoo is more likely to heal better when quality ink is used.
Besides that, quality ink stays looking good for much longer!
Range: Inking for different skin tones and types
Not all ink manufacturers invest in building a wide range.
While some brands take the time to introduce vibrant, long-lasting colours into their range of inks, others prefer to focus on perfecting the black, grey, and white inks in their range.
Brands that focus on colour put a lot of effort into making them safe. Some pigments, such as certain shades of reds, have been known to cause adverse reactions, especially on more sensitive skin types. Modern inks have invested in trying to make these inks safer for use.
Additionally, inks now come in a much wider range of colours that are intense enough to show up on a wider range of skin tones, including dark ones.
Within the black, grey, and white ranges of inks, manufacturers have worked towards building more intense black inks that work just as well on darker skin tones. These inks generally enter the skin more easily and don’t fade as much after the tattoo heals.
Not many of the top brands currently sell specialized inks (such as UV inks), but those that do have created inks much safer than their predecessors. Top brands are constantly experimenting with inks in order to improve the quality of their existing range as well as expand their range with new formulations.
Compatibility: Does the ink work with all tattoo styles and machines?
Lower quality inks don’t disperse or mix easily in solutions, and have a tendency to jam up tattoo machines while an artist is inking. They also spread more during a tattoo session, making the inking process more difficult.
It is also important to use inks that are compatible with the design or style of tattooing you’re working with. For instance, inks that work well for lining and shading will work well for a portrait or a tattoo with lots of detail, while blackwork and cover-up tattoos will require a black ink that is extremely intense and dark. The ink an artist uses must match the tattoo they’re working on.
So when you’re assessing an ink, be sure to take the design and style of the tattoo you’re getting into account.
Can an Artist Make Their Own Ink?
We’ve talked about top brands that are safe for commercial use. But wouldn’t it just be the safest to go fully organic and avoid all this hassle? If inks are now returning to their original formulations, many might wonder – can an artist make their own ink?
Short answer – yes.
Long answer – it’s complicated. Many artists do, in fact, mix up their own formulations. There is no standard international body that approves ink formulations for use in tattooing. While the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetic products for external use, including pigments and inks, it does not specifically regulate inks for use in tattooing.
Artists are therefore free to create an ink they’re comfortable working with. This sounds great in theory, but in practice can be risky as many artists do not have the means to subject their formulations to rigorous testing. Many ‘do-it-yourself’ tattoo inks have also reportedly led to infections and allergic reactions.
This doesn’t, however, rule out organic formulations entirely. As noted above, inks were traditionally made from organic ingredients, and the modern interest in healthier lifestyle choices has led to things like vegan inks becoming increasingly popular.
Artists are also usually careful enough to source their ingredients from trusted suppliers. They invest a lot of time and money to train in the mixing of inks, understand safety and hygiene, and study the chemistry of how pigments and carriers mix and function.
And why wouldn’t they – inking isn’t just their job, it’s their passion. If they do it wrong, they’ll probably never ink again!
How Does Mixing Inks Work?
If you do happen to be an artist that’s thinking of going organic, there are a few things to keep in mind. Mixing inks requires working in extremely safe and hygienic conditions, both to ensure the integrity and quality of the ink as well as for your own safety. These are still chemicals you’re working with, you know!
That means a lot of heavy researching and learning, working in indoor spaces with sterilized equipment to prevent contamination of the ink, and wearing a mask and other protective gear so you don’t accidentally inhale the powdered pigments.
CAUTION! This really should go without saying but if you’re not a tattoo artist – do NOT mess with tattoo inks! It may sound fun to do, but if you’re not serious about inking and don’t have the right equipment and space for mixing, you’ll hurt yourself and people around you.
To Ink or Not to Ink? The Top Ten Brands in the Market – Revealed!
Hearing all of the above might turn some away from inking.
Over the last few decades, ink manufacturers have shifted away from mineral-based pigments to more organic ones, bringing inks closer to their original formulations.
Inchemisty notes that over 80% of all modern colourants are carbon-based, with approximately 60% of organic pigments being azo-based. Of these pigments and dyes, 30% are approved for use in cosmetic industries, which includes the tattoo industry. The rest are used for industrial applications (paints, textiles, etc.).
Put simply – what’s old is new again! Modern tattoo inks are going organic, and most brands are following suit. And which brands might those be, you wonder? That’s right, we have a list – and we checked it twice!
Here are the top brands of tattoo inks (in no particular order):
KURO SUMI: An Artist Favourite!
This ink is regarded very highly within the tattoo industry. Manufactured in Japan with a closely guarded formulation that has been passed down from one generation to the next, this ink is a favourite for outlining. Its name is derived from an ancient group of warriors. The elite members of this group would sport markings on their jaws and stomachs that made them easily recognizable.
Kuro Sumi is organic and vegan, made from ”….the best stuff on Earth”, as their site states. They’re one of the safest inks on the market, so that’s not an exaggeration!
This brand also has a wide range of inks – with over 40 to choose from – and its black is an intense pigment that retains its colour for long after the tattoo has healed. Additionally, tattoos inked with Kuro Sumi products tend to heal faster. This is an ink that does it all!
BLOODLINE & SKIN CANDY TATTOO INK: The Best Black Ink
With its medical grade, state of the art manufacturing facilities in California and EU-certified packaging, the safety and integrity of Bloodline Tattoo Inks is evident.
Bloodline inks are pre-dispersed, making them perfect for new school tattoo artists since it distributes and flows easily, meaning it rarely jams up a tattoo machine. The All Purpose Black ink is one of the best for any kind of tattoo requiring lots of black shading, such as blackwork.
Bloodline Tattoo Ink is quite long-lasting, which is what has earned it the title of ‘the best black ink’. Not only does it sink into skin easily and stay there for a long time, it also has a long shelf-life, meaning artists won’t need to worry about wasting materials.
INTENZE TATTOO INK: Innovation Personified
Safety is at the top of Intenze’s priority list. With multiple teams of biochemists in separate labs developing their products and a consistent focus on sterilization, testing, and safe storage, this brand is at the forefront of creating safe inks. It is EU-certified and meets all the standards and regulations for manufacturing in the US.
Their Zuper Black, in particular, has gained worldwide popularity as the best ink for darker skin tones. But they are more than just their intense black! Intenze has possibly the widest range of inks on the market. Bonus? They’re also totally vegan-friendly and cruelty-free.
DYNAMIC TATTOO INKS: So Intense, You Need a Mixer!
This top of the line brand from the US is great for many reasons, including the intensity of its inks. The colours of these inks are so strong, Dynamic recommends ‘using white to cut them and adding yellow to the mix when toning down browns.’ Talk about intense! This also makes it a favourite among artists who like mixing inks to get certain colours and hues.
Inks from Dynamic are also a favourite among artists for lining. These inks are pre-dispersed, and are therefore smooth and enter the skin easily.
MILLENNIUM COLORS, INC.: Mom’s Ink
The name might be a bit odd for a tattoo ink, but this US brand boasts some of the brightest pigments, which allows for some gorgeously vibrant tattoos that also last a very long time. They’re pre-dispersed and ink smoothly.
The Nuclear line of Mom’s Tattoo Ink is particularly noteworthy. This range of UV inks is widely regarded as one of the best on the market. They are vibrant and show up beautifully under a black-light, but in addition to that most reviews state the ink flows well, enters skin easily, lasts a long time, and does not lead to any adverse reactions.
WORLD FAMOUS TATTOO INK: By artists, for artists!
World Famous Tattoo Inks is one of the most well-known vegan tattoo inks. It passes all safety and health regulations, and is compliant with all EU standards.
They are also one of the few brands that has all its safety information available online for all to view and download.
This brand is also cruelty-free, long-lasting, and maintains its vibrancy well after healing. And in addition to all that, WFTI has a very strong focus on ‘family’, building a brand that connects world-renown pro artists all of whom swear by the brand’s inks, praising it for its intensity, consistency, and saturation of colours.
ETERNAL INK: The All-Purpose Brand
This brand isn’t known only for its tattoo inks – Eternal’s extensive range includes tattoo supplies and materials for every part of the tattooing process. And all of it is top quality!
Another US brand, Eternal’s range is easily accessible because they’re at most of the major tattoo conventions, and where they cannot be – they have distributors to help them out!
Eternal Inks are also non-toxic and vegan-friendly, pre-dispersed and easy to use, and have a massive variety and range of colours and bottle sizes.
PANTHERA BLACK TATTOO INK: Keeping it Simple
Manufactured in Italy, Panthera inks are vegan and sterilized. They enter the skin easily, and are great for lining and shading.
Panthera’s range is quite limited because they put all their focus on perfecting their black inks and their single white ink, which is a popular product for highlighting and shading. When used together, their white ink brings some amazing contrast to a tattoo, making their black inks stand out even more.
RADIANT COLORS TATTOO INKS: Bring on the Spectrum!
A brand that delivers exactly what it says it will, Radiant Inks is known to house some of the best and most vibrant colours on the market. And they stay that way for a very long time too!
Manufactured in the US, Radiant’s inks are sterilized and pre-dispersed. In addition to their wide range of vibrant colours, Radiant also has a link of black inks for outlining and shading.
Its packaging is also a standout, making it easily recognizable in any artist’s studio.
STARBRITE COLORS TATTOO INK:
A prominent brand in the tattoo industry, StarBrite has been around for quite some time. They offer a wide range of shades and their inks are pre-dispersed, heal well, and maintain their vibrancy well after healing.
These inks meet all modern regulation requirements and are sterilized and produced in a ‘class 100,000 A clean room‘, which means StarBrite’s products are well-protected from contamination during manufacturing.
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And there you have it! Everything you would ever need to know about modern tattoo inks! Know someone that might enjoy this post? Feel free to share! And don’t forget to subscribe to us for more awesome tattoo content!