Tattoo Ink Allergies

Updated April 17, 2017

It is rare to walk down the beach and not see a couple of tattoos on people's backs, arms or legs. But with the tattoo needle comes several risks. There is an increased risk of infection and oftentimes people are allergic to the chemicals in tattoo inks. These allergies may appear immediately or may take several years to cause irritation.

Types of Inks

Most tattoo ink colours are derived from metals and chemicals, according to dermatologist Dr. Audrey Kunin. Dr. Kunin outlines the different metals and chemicals in the most common tattooing ink colours.

Red ink is the colour most commonly associated with allergic reactions. It derives from mercury metal. Black ink is most often derived from carbon, and sensitivity to carbon is rare. Yellow ink is derived from cadmium sulphide.

Blue inks are created with cobalt. Green ink comes from chromium. Violet and purple inks are derived from manganese. White ink is created using either titanium or zinc oxide.

If you have prior knowledge about an allergy to one of these substances, it is important to consult your doctor before getting a tattoo.

Causes of Allergy

Most tattoo inks are industrial-grade pigments that are suitable for printing ink and automobile paint, according to the Federal Drug Administration. The FDA says it does not regulate tattoo inks, but with recent tattooing complaints, they have begun researching how the body absorbs tattoo inks. And Dr. Kunin explains that when the skin absorbs the metallic particles in some tattoo pigments, it elicits an allergic reaction to the metal compound. Usually, reactions years after the tattoo are often due to cross-reactants, like certain chemicals and vaccines, that react negatively with the dye and create an allergic breakout.

Symptoms of Allergic Reaction

According to the Mayo Clinic, if you have an itchy rash at your tattoo site, that is a sign that you are having a reaction to the tattoo. Other common reactions include granulomas, which are small bumps under the skins surface. Scaling of tattooed skin has also been reported. In more serious reactions, ulcers have formed on the surface of the skin. A condition known as Lymphocytoma Cutis, according to Dr. Kunin, mimics lymphoma of the skin. Keloid scars--large, raised scars--have been known to form but are not symptoms of an allergic reaction.


If you experience any symptom of an allergic reaction to tattoo ink, it is recommended that you visit your doctor immediately. Rashes and scaling skin may require a topical ointment, though other medications may be prescribed, according to the Mayo Clinic. Granulomas are very difficult to treat and often involve steroid injections at the affected site. Dr. Kunin says that, if this does not work, the tattoo may need to be removed for aesthetic reasons. Though, at other times, the tattoo may need to be removed just for prevention.

Further Research

The FDA is conducting further research into tattoo ink and the effects on the human body. The FDA's Center for Toxicological Research is currently conducting studies about the body's absorption of tattoo ink and whether there are health impacts. They hope to discover new and safer ways to manufacture inks and pigments to prevent reactions, allergic and otherwise, to tattooing.

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About the Author

Megan Pratz began writing professionally in 2010. Her work has been published on, where she writes mainly health and beauty articles. Her health experience comes from covering local and national health concerns for a broadcast news wire. Pratz graduated from the University of Maryland in 2010 with bachelor's degrees in broadcast journalism and psychology.