What is under your skin - Tattoo Ink safety - BLOG - Killer Silver

Tattoo ink is forever – so what’s in your skin?

How Killer Silver Ink is setting a new standard in the US tattooing industry

Let’s start clearing some of the gray clouds that surround the topic of tattoo ink safety.
My name is Caesar, and I’ve been tattooing for more than 25 years. During this time, I’ve also become a tattoo ink and tattoo machine manufacturer (in addition to still being a tattoo artist) in order to fill what I’ve found to be a void in the tattoo supply chain: the industry’s lack of SAFE tattoo ink. So instead of just settling for the inks out there with questionable origins or “we don’t know what’s it the bottle” labels, I set out to create my own ink. My company’s name is: Killer Silver Ltd.

Tattooing Types

Tattooing has 2 main groups:
    1. Tattoos

      This typical style of tattooing is achieved by implanting pigment (solid particles) into the cells of the skin, where it will remain for life.
    2. Cosmetic Tattooing / Permanent makeup

      This style of tattooing uses dies, which are usually water soluble and “disappear” after a period of time.
Group 2 is fine for a lip contour or eyebrow tattooing, but not cool if you have an image of a skeleton on horseback and 3 years down the road, all you have left is one foot at your elbow, half of a skeleton face on the top of your shoulder, and half of a horse’s head between them.
In this article, we will only be discussing the kind of tattoos that last a lifetime.

We all know that tattoos are for life, but have you, as a customer who’s paying big bucks for the artwork, ever asked what INK is under your skin? What is it made of and what does it do to you in the long run?


Tattoo Evolution

Tattooing became very popular in the past 20 years, evolving from an underground, obscure practice of low quality scratching into the socially accepted artform that it is today. This shift in perception happened for many reasons, with one of the main ones being the evolution of the tattoo industry…equipment and tools got better…machines, needles, and inks became state of the art, and this essentially enabled artists with fine art backgrounds a chance to display their skills. After all, fine equipment leads to -> Fine Art.

Hidden Facts

But what the public is not aware of is the fact that tattooing is mostly a self-regulated industry in the US. Customer safety is mostly in the hands of the manufacturers conscious, and like in any field that relies on the monetary system, it CAN’T AFFORD TO BE HONEST. This means profits prevail over customer safety – BUT, us self-regulated tattoo industry manufacturers do a pretty decent job!!!
The FDA ( U.S. Food and Drug Administration ) has no strict regulations. See for yourself FDA Cosmetics Facts – Tattoos Permanent Make up .
Thus, the popularity of tattooing paired with the lack of strict US regulations allow companies who are on the market to make a profit and not have to worry about accountability – therefore, product quality and safety don’t matter too much.
For example, this means that someone can purchase any kind of ready to go ink (for example inkjet printer) ink in 50-gallon barrels in bulk from overseas for cheap and repacking it into few oz bottles and sell it for a huge profit.
Ink in skin looks good after healing too, so it seems like a jackpot for the tattoo artist who’s buying the ink: it’s cheap, easy to use, and looks good after healing. What else does a tattoo artist need?…nothing.

But what about the client, the paying customer?

Product Safety Doubts

Can you be sure that tattoo ink has no carcinogen contents, like heavy metals, solvents, or other toxic ingredients? Now, I would bet that many tattoo collectors over the years have simply stopped breathing or had their hearts just stop because they’ve never considered this fundamental fact and have been living with toxic contents in their bodies all along.

Tattoo Ink & client disconnection

And it’s all because the product never gets in the hand of the client before it goes in their skin. The clients don’t get to inspect the product, the brand, or where it comes from and how it’s made. They have no chance to ask questions and no opportunity to check out the LABELS like they would if they were at the supermarket buying an avocado or a bag of chips. Instead, they are just taking the tattoo artist’s word for it that the ink is good, they trust the tattoo artist and think their tattoos look good, and since the artist is probably well known, then everything is fine…right? Well, sort of…
Ultimate Gray-Wash Set - 7 Bottle 4.4 oz Set - 7 Deadly Shades - Killer Silver

Facts about Tattoo Supplies

Before I started commercially manufacturing my own Killer Silver signature gray-wash tattoo ink line, I naively thought that if I went to an official or well-known tattoo supply store, I could purchase anything from their inventory and it would be checked by someone from  FTC (Federal Trade Commission) who regulates consumer safety, and they would have approved it. But nothing is further from the truth. In reality, the tattoo supplier can buy anything from anywhere and mark it up and resell it without anybody’s consumer safety supervision or reporting. This also applies to tattoo inks also.


Killer Silver Mission

Because of this reason, I, as a tattoo artist, wanted to have peace of mind that my product would not cause any short or long term health issue to Killer Silver ink collectors.
The FDA – U.S. Food and Drug Administration is surprisingly powerless in the regulation of tattoo ink possibly because it is really hard or impossible to prove whether or not any reported health issues are directly related to the tattoo ink used.

Tattoo Ink Health Risks

The two major instances of potential issues:
    1. Short term issues
    2. Long term issues
Let’s talk about these issues broadly, and what could potentially cause them
1. Short term issues can be caused by things that come in contact with the customer’s skin and blood. The symptoms for many of these issues are quite similar, but they usually heal biologically in about 2-3 weeks rather than the ideal 4-5 day healing process. The typical result of this issue is “ink fell,” meaning the tattoo will appear lighter than it was intended to. This is easy to fix after the skin heals by doing a touch-up. During the tattooing session, there is no visible sign of this issue, but by day 2-3 into the healing period, the skin is usually quite painful since it was basically traumatized.
Usual symptoms include redness outside the tattooed area, swelling, and skin that looks as if it has been cut. In the case of line work, heavy scabs begin forming.   
(I’m not a dermatologist, these opinions are only based on my observations.)  
   1.1 Tattoo needle
   1.2 Tattoo Ink
   1.3 Tattoo Artist
   1.4 Products we use before, during, and after tattooing
1.1 Tattoo needle – this type of needle is made of solid stainless steel (not hollow like a syringe,) and it is sharpened and soldered into different configurations to adapt to the appropriate tattoo style or method that the tattoo artist chooses.
Potential problem: if the needle gets hooked at the tip – either a manufacturing quality issue, or the tattoo artist hit a hard object like the bottom of a tattoo ink cup – it will cause trauma to the skin, because instead of punching the skin like a sewing machine, it rips the skin every time on the way back during the up and down motion.
1.2 Tattoo Ink can be contaminated, causing rashes and other skin issues. Microbiological mold content is a long term skin issue and is a more dangerous issue than yeast. And though unrelated, an ink composition that’s not ideal can also cause “skin overworking,” which happens when an artist gets used to working with dark tones where they can easily see the contrast between the skin and the ink, but when they use ink that is lighter and less pigmented, they tend to overwork the skin because they think there is no pigment in the ink solution. (This is why my Killer Silver 6% and Killer Silver 12% requires skill to learn how to use it.)
1.3 Tattoo Artists can “overwork” the skin. They go over the same spot of the tattoo too many times, which ends up destroying the top few layers of the epidermis. Biologically, this is pretty similar to the road rash you probably got during your childhood, falling off from your bicycle and scraping your forearm. Tattoo artists also can cause scarring when their hand moves slower than the tattoo machine, allowing too many punctures to go too deep into the skin – this results in lines/ink sections that are raised up from the skin.
1.4 We use additional products to prepare the skin before tattooing, such as alcohol or Dettol, as well as numbing creams and sprays during tattooing, plus green soap and other products afterward – all of which can cause sensitivity and affect the healing speed if the client reacts to them…even latex gloves.
2. Long term issues
In my opinion, long term issues can only be caused by the tattoo ink, since the solid ink particles are the only thing that stays in the skin forever (which ultimately gives us visual satisfaction – that’s why we tattoo in the first place.) The rest of the components of the ink is just a carrier to get the solid parts into its destination.
We don’t really have long term studies on how tattoo ink affects health in the long run. And how could you prove it? A person with two sleeves (full arm tattoos) has had somewhere between 60-100 hours of tattooing work done by multiple artists throughout YEARS of collecting – not to talk about the different brands and colors of ink used, and which batches of those colors were used. Sounds complicated and untraceable, right?
Even if you were to know the brand of the tattoo ink that was used on you, you wouldn’t know the batch number to be able to ID it. Most of the European countries force tattoo artists to run a log by the date and batch number per client for these purposes otherwise they got fined. So it is really hard to hold anyone accountable by saying a particular type of ink causes cancer. The FDA has no manpower and there’s no funding for this type of undertaking since it’s not causing epidemic health issues. 150 complaint reports in the United States in two years (2003-2004) with a population of 320 million is not a scary number. Germany has strict regulations regarding tattoo ink AND also ink labeling regulations, all of which are heavily enforced.
After all, it is your responsibility to decide which INK goes to your body…just like food! if you don’t know what is in the bottle, don’t put it under your skin! Do your own research! You can spend 3 hours to research the right computer to buy….you should really do the same for your tattoo ink, because your health is worth it!

Tattoo Ink Creditability

Which types of tattooing paperwork can we believe in?

Here is a common misconception regarding the MSDS Sheet (Material Safety Data Sheet) – which is supposedly used as “proof of Safety.”
Well, first off…
    1. The MSDS sheet is not required for all products
    2. The MSDS sheet is also not an honest product. You can give data to a company and have them write whatever you want them to on those papers, for money of course. Those guys are not consumer affairs lab guys who are testing the product for all kinds of safety issues. They are just office guys with text editor software on their laptops. The only time they ever see microscopes and laboratory equipment is on Friday night at 8pm on the science channel.
    3. So if your tattoo artist is telling you, that the tattoo ink they’re using is safe because it has an MSDS sheet, you need to be aware that isn’t the right protection you are looking for as a collector.
This option was not good enough for me, so we at Killer Silver Ink sought out the strictest regulations on the planet earth: Germany. Those guys are taking this seriously. They really test the tattoo ink to incredible extents. One of the German Laboratories, called CTL Laboratory, became the industry standard for tattoo ink testing in Germany/Europe. If you fail their test, they won’t register your product in their database.
The tests they are running on tattoo inks are looking for:
    1. Aromatic Amines, known to cause Cancer (20 Substances)
    2. Carcinogens in Categories 1,2 and 3 denoted in the Council Directive 1967/548/EEC of 27th June 1967 (7 Substances)
    3. Dyes which are carcinogenic, mutagenic, have reprotoxic or sensitizing properties i.e. cause allergic conditions (35 Substances)
    4. Metals as Impurities (13 Substances)
    5. micro (PAH), Benzene-a-pyrene (BaP)
    6. Microbiological Test of Sterility
What is under your skin - Tattoo Ink safety - BLOG - Killer Silver
Essentially, what these hocus-pocus professional terms mean is that they check the product toxicity level for many ingredients before they declare it safe.
Killer Silver failed on the very first test back in 2014…which was actually very helpful, because it pointed out that the ingredients we used from those suppliers were not acceptable or safe. Killer Silver needed a more safe and reliable source of ingredients…and we nailed it the second time around…and ever since!
…BUT this still doesn’t guarantee you that it’s 100% safe, because the test was only performed on that particular batch/LOT number (<–click to find out why batch numbers matter.) Why? Well, let’s take a look at Killer Silver 100% – our most popular black ink.
We manufacture this ink using the same exact product recipe in different quantities on different dates.
For example, we’ll produce 100 gallons of ink on February 22nd, 2016, and 679 gallons of the same product on March 1st, 2017. These are the same final products, made with the same recipe and the same ratio of ingredients, but already new batch of ingredients from our suppliers because we used them up from the previous batch. For this exact reason tracking purposes, we put different manufacturing/lot/batch numbers on each batch. If a complaint comes in, this is how we track down the product distribution and are able to perform a potential recall and we are able to track back the source ingredient of the issue also.
So gaining certification from CTL Laboratory means that the particular manufacturer has the capability to sustain a continuous high-quality product because they have the infrastructure to do so. On the daily manufacturing level, other equally important points need to be tested to ensure the quality of the product.
 Micro testing is done for:
    1. Aerobic microbial
    2. Yeast and mold
These tests are done because contamination can happen during every step of the manufacturing processes.
The US is a huge domestic market with low government regulation and resistance, thus it seems like easy money to jump in to for a quick profit. But in the EU market, you’re facing much smaller profits and much more strict regulations.
GERMANY has regulation enforcement set up by the state. The German Health Department goes from shop to shop unannounced and takes tattoo ink right from the tables of tattoo artists to test it. If the ink doesn’t pass their inspection…the tattoo artist gets a fine, to make sure they won’t ever want to buy and use that ink in the future. Here in the states, nothing like this exists right now.
If you were to ask 100 people whether they know or are aware of the Tattoo ink – just the brand – that sits under their skin, the average response you’d get is: “I have no clue.”
80’s-90’s and earlier we used anything to put under the skin – all sorts of drawing inks and paints, and so on – because we had no  other options. We were a foster industry. Nobody wanted us, but we kept going, family business style. At the time, an appropriate tattoo ink-like product did not exist. As long as it looked good after healing, we were happy with it. But nobody was thinking – at least not publicly – about the ingredients or safety, because mostly it was just the bottom of society getting tattooed. Bikers, sailors, jail-timed guys and so on…there were no lawyers, teachers, or doctors who were massively getting inked.
NOW, in 2019, WE DO HAVE SAFE ALTERNATIVE TATTOO INK options compared to using drawing inks (Pelikan ink, Talens, and so on) – at least we know what these products are. They’re drawing inks. Their job is to fill up your fountain pen, make the line nice and runny, be absorbed fast in the paper, and so on. To reach this effect, the manufacturer is allowed to use whatever ingredients (carcinogens, toxins, solvents) because it IS NOT MEANT TO LIVE IN THE HUMAN BODY. This is the reason that the German Drawing ink manufacturing companies have revoked their distribution for selling to the tattoo industry. These inks have natrium tetraborate  – aka, BORAX, just like what’s in your laundry detergent – in them as an ingredient to secure chemical stability for the product, which is a well-known carcinogen.
I even tattooed myself with it back it the day, because I didn’t know any better and I didn’t have any alternatives back then.
Imagine there are still tattoo artists out there who are choosing the cheap inks with questionable origins or questionable contents, and they opt for inks with certifications that certify nothing more than a bad product, rather than paying a little more for ink that’s actually safe.
Suppliers, as the point of distribution, are really the ones who can make a change in the industry. The problem is that they are after the profits, and regardless of whether they make less profit on cheaper products, the quantities they are selling bring the numbers up because tattoo artists are still after the cheaper products.
But how much cheaper are we talking about?
8oz of a questionable product costs $28 vs the same 8oz of Killer Silver 100%, which costs $43.
That’s 50% more expensive, right? Well, if you calculate based on the fact that you can tattoo around 200 hours worth (just calculate your tattoo artist’s hourly rate) with an 8oz bottle of ink, the difference for the SAFETY of the consumer comes down to a fraction of a cent.
So MY question is:

What product would you let your daughter get tattooed with?

You can read more about Killer Silver Ink product safety standards or about the formula along with our story.
[Image of a full body Killer Silver tattoo on a girl]

2 thoughts on “Tattoo ink is forever – so what’s in your skin?

  1. Michael skinner says:

    Very informative. I’ve been tattooing now for 18 years and I appreciate artist like Caesar getting into the supply industry to make sure that other artist are knowledgeable as the product they are getting and has hands on skills to OK what works and what does not. Better than a non tattoo artist trying to get rich quick off of shady products. Thank you again Caesar for all your hard work and dedication to our ever growing industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 + 2 =