Tattoo Ink Allergy: Think Before You Ink

Getting a tattoo is not a pain-free process and there are several risks to consider before subjecting your skin to a tattoo needle. Even if you choose a safe tattoo studio and an artist who uses a sterile needle, bad reactions can still occur right after you get a tattoo and even years later. Tattoo ink can potentially cause an allergic reaction which can then result to swelling, irritation, a rash, or some other skin problem, at or around the tattooed area.

What Causes a Tattoo Allergy?

Tattoo ink contains ingredients and chemicals, and most allergic reactions are tied to this. This hypersensitivity often presents as contact dermatitis or photosensitivity.

Here are some ingredients that may cause allergic reactions:

  • aluminum
  • aminoazobenzene
  • brazilwood
  • cadmium sulfide
  • carbon (also called India Ink)
  • chromic oxide
  • cobalt aluminate
  • cobalt chloride
  • ferric oxide
  • iron oxide
  • lead chromate
  • manganese
  • mercury sulfide
  • phthalocyanine dyes
  • sandalwood
  • titanium oxide
  • zinc oxide

There are some inks now that contain dyes that are made from the same components used in commercial and car paints or inks, and these can all cause an immune response, meaning the body sees it as a foreign matter. While tattoo ink is not regulated by the U.S. FDA, they do have reports of people’s negative responses to certain ingredients.

Types of Tattoo Allergic Reaction

Acute inflammatory allergic reaction

This is the most common reaction, wherein the skin becomes irritated, red, and slightly swollen. It is caused by the tattoo needle and the tattoo ink. It usually subsides about two to three weeks.


Tattoos that are exposed to the sun may result in an allergic reaction, especially those that contain yellow ink. Yellow ink and some red tattoo pigments contain cadmium sulfide, which causes a reaction when exposed to the sun.


Contact dermatitis is often caused by mercury sulfide, which is also found in red tattoo ink.

Lichenoid allergic reaction

This is a rare reaction, which is also related to red tattoo ink. It causes small bumps that appear around the ink areas. So if you're wondering, "Why does my tattoo have bumps and itch?" This might be it. But to be sure, consult your doctor at the first sign of rash. 

Pseudolymphomatous allergic reaction

This is a delayed reaction caused by red and sometimes blue and green tattoo inks.


Granulomas are small bumps that is caused by red, purple, green, or blue tattoo ink, often seen around the site of the tattoo.

How do I know I am getting an allergic reaction to the tattoo pigment?

The allergic reaction usually manifests as sudden onset of irritation, swelling, and redness in a part of the tattoo a few weeks, or in rare cases, many years after its infliction. The signs vary depending on the type of allergic reaction and the ingredient in the tattoo ink that’s causing it. But the common signs include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Rashes or bumps
  • Flaking
  • Scaly appearance
  • Purple or red nodules around the tattoo


If you ever end up experiencing symptoms of tattoo ink allergy, it is wise to fix an appointment with your dermatologist or allergist immediately. The treatment for these reactions usually includes topical corticosteroid creams or intralesional steroids (steroid given into the area affected). Some people with severe reactions may have to undergo complete removal of the foreign pigment through surgery or using laser.


  • Before getting a tattoo, you should think about the pros and cons, and the ways you can minimize your chances of having a bad reaction to your tattoo
  • Do your research and choose a professional tattoo parlor, which means ensuring that the artist has the proper license for your state
  • Ask about the equipment before you get your tattoo, and make sure everything is in sterile packaging
  • If you notice something suspicious about your tattoo after you get it, contact your tattoo artist, and if the problem persists, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist
  • Consult with your dermatologist before you get a tattoo especially if you have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before touching your new tattoo or the bandage used to cover it
  • Avoid scratching or picking at your tattoo to prevent bacteria away from the skin
  • Wear organic cotton clothing to cover and protect your infected tattoo 


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