Dutch tattoo parlours are currently desperate for REACH-compliant tattoo ink. Since 4 January, their old ink inventory has become unusable, and the alternative is still a long way off.
On the website of wholesaler Tektik.eu, all known ink brands are marked in red: ‘This ink set does not comply with REACH.’ There is only one brand that currently has a black and a white ink that has earned approval. These inks consist largely of water and carbon or titanium dioxide. The demand for these REACH-OK inks is high, hence they are sold out. Moreover, it is a proverbial drop in the ocean, as no alternative is available yet for the rest of the colour range.
Cosmetics vs tattoo ink
It comes as a shock to many Dutch tattooists: their ink stocks became unusable on 4 January, and alternatives are not yet on the market. After difficult years with covid-lockdowns they start the new year with empty hands. Yet this change in the law should not come as a complete surprise. European policymakers have been discussing stricter rules to reduce the risk of skin irritation, allergy and exposure to carcinogens since 2015.
The European market for tattoo ink has so far been virtually unregulated, unlike, for example, cosmetics and hair dye, where heavy metals, carcinogenic substances or allergenic compounds are not allowed. What made this situation so special was that the banned ingredients in make-up were introduced into the skin with a tattoo needle on a milligram scale.
Banned ingredients in make-up are introduced into the skin with a tattoo needle
Research commissioned by ECHA a few years ago showed that many brightly coloured tattoo inks contain azo pigments. Not all of these are extremely toxic or carcinogenic, but they can break down under the influence of UV light, and the aromatic amines released in the process are carcinogenic. Moreover, doctors now know that ink particles do not remain in the skin indefinitely. A percentage of them wander around, and doctors sometimes see striking lymph nodes coloured by ink during operations.
Complex and unclear rules
Contamination was another concern. Many tattoo pigments are produced for other, low-value industrial purposes, such as car paint, plastics and clothing dyes. The purity requirements in those sectors are not very stringent, so these pigments often contain organic contaminants and heavy metals. Furthermore, black inks sometimes contain remarkably high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in addition to industrial carbon black.
The new REACH rules for tattoo ingredients are complex and confusing. For example, the extensive text refers to European cosmetics regulations. In total, the use of four thousand substances is regulated. This can be seen most clearly in Appendix 13 of the regulations. It contains a list of substances with a concentration limit in tattooing ink. For example, the concentration of nickel, chromium and PAH may not exceed 0.00005%. For a long list of azo dyes, the limit is 0.1%.
In addition to the chemical restrictions, new labelling rules are also in force. Ingredients, percentages and allergy warnings are mandatory, as is the indication of the lot number of a batch of ink. Ink manufacturers must therefore look for reliable raw material suppliers and keep records of the analytical status of ink batches and ingredients used.
Tattoo inks contain more than just pigment: they are aqueous emulsions of pigment particles plus various additives that ensure emulsification, shelf life and smooth processing. These additional ingredients are also subject to the same rules. Old inks, for example, contained isopropanol as an additive, and this substance has been banned from cosmetics due to the risk of serious eye irritation, and therefore now also from tattoo ink. According to Tektik, this is a trivial reason why all old ink should be thrown away.
The tattoo industry and customers will have to wait and see when manufacturers come up with REACH-OK inks. Wholesaler Tektik asks customers in the meantime not to call or email. ‘We know that Eternal, Intenze, World Famous and Silverback are working on the final test phase of a (coloured) REACH compliant ink. However, we have not been given a deadline and our e-mails receive no response or only a dry ‘We are working on it’.’