Student Entry By: Jennifer E. Lawrence, M.B.A.

Safe. A keyword in a society filled with antibacterial hand sanitizers and nerf toy recalls. We are always seeking to ensure, be it a service or product, that it is “safe” before we do it, or use… most of the time.

Having received my first tattoo at the knowledgable age of 18, I put little thought into the question of, “Is this ink that is about to be injected into my body, safe?” I was more concerned if the tattoo I choose would look cool enough to last into the old age of 30, not, can this cause bodily harm?

As 30 has come and gone, I am now considering re-inking my 18 year old tats to breathe new life into them, giving them new flair. Reflecting back through my tattooing journey I have begun to question where the ink products come from, how they are made and the implications they have on my safety and well being. In that, I began to explore the safety of tattoo inks.

Safety – A Real World Definition

The Medical Dictionary defines safety as a “free from danger or injury”. (Safe, 2016). Free from danger or injury? Are you kidding me? Just short of living in a sterile bubble, being 100% free from danger and injury is next to impossible! For the sake of living, let’s build on this definition and create a real world goal. In the real world, we can take actions to minimize dangers and injury rather than to be totally void of them. So for the purpose of this article, real world safe will be the definition I use moving forward.

Manufacturing the Ink


After clearly defining the use of the word safe, I decided to start my investigation of the creation of tattoo inks. Having grown up with parents that own a manufacturing company I immediately took to seeking those who manufacture tattoo inks for answers to the question of creating ink safety.

I had a chance to speak with Carl Basile of Papillon Supply, manufactures of StarBrite Ink, regarding their strict practices in creating tattoo inks. For over 30 years, Papillion Supply has manufactured inks with a simple ingredient list:

  • Triple filtered water

  • Raw pigments and

  • Alcohol

That’s it. Plain and simple.

Let’s analyze these three ingredients a bit further in depth and look at the real world safety of them.

  1. Triple filtered water. This water has had chlorine, chemicals, large particles, microbes, heavy metals, aluminum and nuclear waste removed from the water. I am pretty sure water with nuclear waste removed from it is safer than straight tap water.

Real World Safe – Check.

  1. Raw Pigments. According to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, “Raw pigments used in the inks are color additives, which are subject to premarket approval.” (2015). As such the pigments Papillon Supply use have already passed approval by the Food and Drug Administration. However, if that wasn’t enough, Papillon Supply uses vegan pigments. This means their pigments do not come from any animals or any animal by-products. They are strictly from the Earth. As such their inks support less air pollution, less stress on natural resources and less land, fossil fuels and water.

Real World Safe – Check.

Awesome for our Earth, Check.

  1. Alcohol – Papillion utilizes an alcohol that is 99.99% pure alcohol to kill germs. According to the CDC the, “antimicrobial action of alcohol is denaturation of proteins.” (2009). This means alcohol has the potential to destroy microbes, thus creating a disinfected ink. Other manufactures may utilize means of Gamma Irradiation Processing for sterilization which also kills microorganisms. This process is also used for medical purposes to sterilize devices preoperative procedures.

Real World Safe – Check.


After looking at the physical ingredients, let’s look at the process of creating and building the inks. Throughout the creation process it is manufactured and bottled in a clean room. Yes, you read that right, a clean room. Clean rooms are used by various organizations such as pharmaceutical companies, scientific research companies, and as it turns out, tattoo ink companies to control environmental contaminants. These rooms keep airborne microbes, chemical vapors and aerosol particles out. In these clean rooms, employees wear full clean room suits and maintain a controlled environment to ensure product safety. Thus when a bottle has been sealed, Papillion Supply knows exactly what is in their ink down to microparticles. Come to think of it, I am not even sure toothbrushes passes through a clean room before they hit the shelves. (It is okay to stop to shudder here).

Safety with Oversight

As with all companies, it is good to have a check and balance system to ensure safe standards are consistently being met. This check and balance system exists in the US through the FDA. As previously mentioned, the US Food and Drug Administration approves pigments before companies can purchase them for use in their inks. In addition, the US Food and Drug Administration considers tattoo ink to be a cosmetic, as such they “investigate and take action…to prevent customer illness or injury”. (2015) This means at any time, inspectors can enter the ink manufacturer’s facilities, observe facilities, modes of process, and take samples of inks without notice. Once analyzed manufactures then receive a graded report from the FDA. Much like a restaurant, manufactures are given notice for areas of improvement and compliance. The FDA also publishes a Consumer Report allowing consumers to review ink recalls prior to using ink in their body.

Tying it all into Real World Safety

Thus far we have discovered tattoo ink ingredients, manufacturing process and oversights have all passed real world safety checks. When considering tattoo ink, research the ink manufacture and learn what processes go into creating their inks. In addition, talk with your tattoo artist to ensure safety from manufacture to artist palette. As for me, I will be sticking with Papillon and their A+ rated inks. Time to add some flair to this old ink, and possibly consider researching the safety of toothbrushes.