Generally speaking, tattoo ink is a proprietary blend of metal salts, vegetable dyes, and sometimes particles of colored plastic suspended in a carrier solution such as witch hazel, ethyl alcohol, or glycerin. The FDA has the authority to regulate ingredients that can be mixed into ink, but that doesn’t mean it does. Some metal-based colors can cause nasty allergic reactions; for example, red made from mercury (also known as mercury sulfide, cinnabar, vermillion, and red cinnabar) is the most common aggravator, causing a permanent rash on and around the tattoo.
But toxic inks should soon be a thing of the past, as secret recipes give way to science. Dr. Bruce Klitzman of Duke University’s Kenan Plastic Surgery Research Labs developed Freedom-2 inks to help mastectomy patients who were getting reconstructive surgery. The pigments in Freedom-2 are soluble (some are vegetable-based), meaning they are able to be dissolved by the body over time. Typically, that’s exactly what you don’t want in a tattoo pigment, but Klitzman went the extra step of encapsulating the ink inside microscopic plastic beads. The tiny transparent ink beads trap the colors, but they can be cracked with a single pass of a standard tattoo-removal laser, releasing the (nonharmful) ink into the body, where it breaks down.
Erasable inks also may hold up better over time than the old permanent inks. Klitzman and his team standardized the diameter of the plastic beads, which creates a more stable image that won’t blur over the years. He’s planning to roll out Freedom-2 to the larger tattoo community by the end of this year.