I want to share with you my understanding of pigments as a fellow technician, as impartially as possible, to help you understand better the differences between permanent solutions (usually referred to as ink) and pigments designed for cosmetic tattooing or are they?
Over the last few years there has been a steady increase in technicians choosing more permanent options for cosmetic tattooing. My approach is not to tell you what you should or shouldn’t use, but to help present information on a simplified level that hopefully enables you to think as an individual and make an informed choice regarding the products that you choose to tattoo your clients.
I’m not going to discuss colour or how it breaks down and fades over time, but rather provide you with information on the pigments we use, how they are created and classified.
What is a pigment?
A pigment is a particle of colour, a tattoo pigment is non soluble particle of colour suspended in a carrier for the purpose of implanting within the skin.
Carrier solutions of solvents, binders, humectants and preservatives (such as water, alcohol, witch hazel, glycerine, polymers) which create a safe vehicle for the pigment particles to be implanted within the skin .
What happens when we tattoo
When we create any form of tattoo whether it is body art, cosmetic tattooing (which includes microblading for the avoidance of any doubt!) we place the pigment into the papillary (upper) dermal layer, where it remains trapped within fibroblast cells and macrophages. When our body perceives injury an immune reaction is triggered and as the pigment is implanted macrophages engulf the pigment particles establishing whether foreign objects are threats to the body (phagocytosis) some particles will be carried away by the macrophages whilst some are also deposited within the epidermal layer but these deposits will exfoliate fairly rapidly with the natural process of desquamation that occurs from the basal epidermal layer.
Particle size is important when considering this process as is choice of ingredient.
Pigments are in the following categories for permanent cosmetics;
All pigments for tattooing are lab created (synthetic) to prevent contamination and provide compatibility.
- Organics – synthetically derived from carbon materials or petrochemicals, dye binded to metal salts, lakes
- True Organic – carbon black
- Inorganics – synthetic iron oxides, titanium oxide, chromium oxides
Organics, dye binded to metal salts or lakes are widely used by manufacturers within both the permanent cosmetic and body art tattoo industry, they offer a wider range of colour choices than organics but can be less stable, can present issues with migration and where that organic pigment is chemically derived from certainly has a bearing on the safety and durability. They are largely synthesised from aromatic hydrocarbons, compounds of carbon with hydrogen, nitrogen (Azo pigments) and oxygen and there have been question marks regarding toxicology of certain pigments.
Each pigment has its unique molecular weight, this varies depending on individual pigment.
The molecule size is unique to the colour, the particle size (Micron) of any particular pigment can and is often varied but the molecule size is unique to the ingredient.
Particle size, or micron is an important consideration of a pigment formula, its stability how those particles fade down over time and also how the bodies immune response behaves towards that substance when its implanted. Having differing particles sizes in a formula can make a product unstable.
There is argument of smaller particle size being less likely to be recognised as a foreign object and therefore having the possibility to be more durable.
As is relevant the quantity of those particles contained, the quantity of the colourant within the suspension is relevant to the durabilty of the pigment, the concentration of colour pigments vs carrier.
If a product is contaminated then this means the possibilty of causing an infection and also the pigment being engulfed and expelled by the bodies immune system. There is valid argument for smaller bottle sizes that also enable the product contained to remain sterile until it hits the air.
Each pigment has its unique code an INCI code that tells us what that ingredient is, to some extent it tells us information such as what that substance is derived from as in organic or inorganic but it doesnt tell us exactly where it is sourced.
Below I have taken several well known and used pigments for both body art tattooing and permanent cosmetics.
- CI21095 Azo Organic Yellow
- CI12477 Azo Organic Red
- CI77266 Carbon Black
- CI77891 Titanium Dioxide
(other ingredients not listed for this product)
- CI21095 Azo Organic Yellow
- CI77491 Iron Oxide Red
- CI77266 Carbon Black:
Aqua, isopropyl alcohol, witch hazel water, *no acrylates listed.
Inorganic Brown 1
- CI77499 Iron Oxide Black
- CI77491 Iron Oxide Red
- CI77492 Iron Oxide Yellow
- CI77891 Titanium Dioxide
glycerin, aqua, ispropyl alcohol, caprylic glycol,ammonium acrylates polymer
If we are to take the product above a brown composed of black, red, yellow and smallest quantity white, whilst we obviously don’t have access from this information the particle size, quality of the source of pigment or stability of that end product we can determine the following:
White is the largest molecule and breaks down last
Red is the second strongest
then lastly yellow, the weakest
How this formula will fade down individually depends on the exact quantities of each colour, but we know that yellow will be the first as it is the weakest. If you try and mix together the colours above in a palette it soon becomes apparent how the balance can be tipped very easily, demonstrates how delicate the formulation of pigment solutions is.
If you were to have weaker quality of 1 or more ingredients or a poor balance this would increase the possibility undesirable fade.
The breakdown of pigment within the body depends on many factors, not simply the formulation of the pigment, concentration and quality of ingredient but also the subject it is implanted within, the health, metabolism and skin tone and type of course play a part along with the essential correct selection of colour for your subject.
There are manufacturers who favour organic over inorganic pigments and vice versa, there are pros and cons to each.
The inclusion of carbon black into a formula is one of the major differences between how permanent a product is designed to be, but we must remember that carbon black holds high risk of migration,
heavy metal content also plays a part along with ingredients that are unable to be broken down and organic synthetics of particular origins can fall into that category, certain products are not approved for use in cosmetic products.
There are colorants are produced for the purpose of industrial colouring such as paints and not considered for using to implant within the skin.
If the ingredient is not for production of cosmetic and say for another purpose it is debatable if they are either safe or suitable for implanting within the skin and certainly questionable for implanting within the face.
There is the argument for long lasting colour, whilst it is certainly not agreeable to have poor fade down of colours in a short space of time it is also important to consider the safety of ingredients used and also to remember that allowing for morphological changes over time as we age that slight adjustments is preferable long term.
It is also a consideration if work needs removing, organic pigments are incredibly difficult to remove and if containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) these are then liberated from the macrophage into the body.
In Europe pigments must be compliant with ReSap, which dictates heavy metal levels, sterility, labelling and maintaining legal ingredients, it is important to note that despite stating testing and certifications several brands frequently have colours included on the RAPEX alarm system and usually for ingredients that are used widely within certain formulas.
We are yet to know exactly the results of using certain ingredients as many have had a relatively short life span being used for permanent make up, there is ongoing research into the chemical composition of tattoo pigments and how they breakdown along with toxicological effect.