Does Tattoo Ink Really Expire? Check With Me!


An expiry date is a manufacturer-specified date after which a product should no longer be used, either because of legal provisions or because of the product’s limited shelf life. Either way, an expiration date is used to indicate that –

  • product content will degrade, chemically or biologically, making it unfit or unsafe for use; or
  • contamination of the product by outside agents is likely over time, making it unsafe for use.

So what about tattoo ink? Does it ever expire too?

Tattoo inks use inorganic pigments mixed with a liquid carrier in which it is dispersed. These pigments don’t degrade, but the carrier liquid evaporates, leaving room for contaminants like bacteria or other chemicals. So, tattoo ink really can expire because it can become contaminated over time.

The container in which the ink is stored also has a shelf life, so even if the contents may not degrade, the container can, allowing contaminants to enter. Consumer health and safety is the primary reason for setting an expiry date on any product. Other reasons are to limit a manufacturer’s potential legal liability due to injudicious use of the product and to protect its brand or reputation.

If you are looking for inspiration before your tattoo, check out my portfolio – you can find my works and projects here – on Instagram.

What Is The Shelf Life Of Tattoo Ink?

The shelf-life of tattoo ink is usually around two years but can be as little as three months, depending on the manufacturer, the ink container, and the ink’s components. Busy tattooists use up the more common colors long before the expiration date. It is always printed on the label by reputable manufacturers so anyone can check it.

Respected tattoo studios throw expired inks away. Some manufacturers state that the ink must be used within a particular period after being opened for the first time. The manner in which the inks are stored is also a consideration when it comes to shelf-life. Most manufacturers recommend that they are kept out of the sun in a cool, dry place. Freezing the ink is not recommended.

Some pigments come in a powder form that is mixed by the tattoo artist with distilled water or alcohol to make up the ink. In this case, the expiry date should be printed on the powder container. There is a greater contamination risk if the ink is not mixed and bottled in sterile conditions.

Inferior quality inks made in unsterile environments can infect the customer with hepatitis C, hepatitis B, or even tetanus. Although quality tattoo ink costs a bit more, it ensures long-lasting bright colors, clean results, and a much safer tattooing procedure.

If a tattoo parlor uses inks that do not have expiry dates printed on them, it is better not to use them.

What Is InTattoo Ink?

Tattoo inks are available in various colors that can be thinned or mixed together to produce different shades. Most professional tattoo artists use pre-made inks, but some mix their own using a dry pigment and a carrier fluid. Professional inks are made from metal salts, plastics, or iron oxide.

Historically, pigments used in tattoo inks came from naturally occurring minerals to produce certain hues.Carbon and iron oxide were used to make black ink. A mercury sulfide compound, called cinnabar, was used to create red ink. Red, orange, and yellow huescame from cadmium compounds.  Other substances used as pigments are selenium, arsenic, beryllium, antimony, sulfur, and calcium. 

In recent years, some ink manufacturers have moved away from inorganic, mineral-based pigments to organic substances. Many ink colorants today are carbon-based. Some of them were developed for the cosmetics industry, but others are used in textiles, paint, and other industrial applications.

Manufacturers usually blend the heavy metal pigments and may add lightening agents such as titanium or lead. Metals used in inks include mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc, chromium, aluminum, titanium, copper, and iron. The law doesn’t require manufacturers to list the ink ingredients on the label, but the reputable ones do.

The various substances used in tattoo inks are not regulated as potentially toxic products by the FDA. Tattooing regulations vary between regions, but they tend to focus on the risk of infection and disease transmission through unhygienic practices. There is not much scientific research into the effects in humans of the ink ingredients.

What Happens If You Use Expired Tattoo Ink?

Tattoo ink that is past its expiry date may harbor bacteria that can cause a severe infection leading to potential scarring or distortion at the tattoo site. Unhygienic practices in tattoo parlors can contaminate the ink bottles, and unsafe manufacturing processes can allow bacteria to survive in the ink.

Early signs of infection may appear two to three weeks after the tattoo. Swelling, redness, pain, and a discharge of pus are common early symptoms. You may also experience chills, intense itching or burning, and bumps on or around the tattoo.

If the infection is not treated, pain, sweating, and fever can develop. Treatment with antibiotics is usually necessary.

Inks are regulated by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a cosmetic product. The FDA has warned that tattoo inks, and the pigments used to color them, can become contaminated by bacteria and mold. In early 2012, the FDA investigated serious tattoo-related infections in four states.

It was concerned about non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) outbreaks related to contaminated inks. One type of NTM bacteria, called M. chelonae, causes eye problems, lung disease, and joint infections, which are difficult to diagnose and may need up to six months of treatment.

The FDA traced nineteen infections in New York State to a particular tattoo artist who used the same brand of ink on all of them. The tests showed that ink taken from a sealed container carried the specific type of NTM bug that caused the infections. The manufacturer was forced to recall the ink.

There were also outbreaks of NTM infections in other states such as Washington, Colorado, and Iowa. These involved different NTM species and different ink manufacturers to the one in New York State.

Opened containers of tattoo ink usually have a 12-month shelf life and should be disposed of within this time once opened. Microbial growth may develop in the bottle after opening, and there is a risk of cross-contamination.

Can You Use Unopened Expired Tattoo Ink?

Reputable manufacturers will state the expiry date on the ink in two ways. For instance, there will be a notice that says “use within 12 months after opening”. There will also be an expiry date after which the ink should not be used, whether opened or not.

If the ink bottle remains unopened, the shelf life can be longer than 12 months, with one manufacturer saying its unopened inks can last up to three years.

Using unopened, expired ink carries risks because the container has a shelf-life. Even though the ink itself may not have degraded, the container could have. Some alcohols and solvents used as pigment carriers will sufficiently break down plastic containers to allow polymers and aldehydes to form.

The seals could also break down over time, allowing contamination.

A lot depends on where and how the ink is stored and what the container is made from. Distributors of quality inks usually list the ingredients used in their products, the conditions of use, and other warnings.

At a minimum, the packaging should reference the manufacturer’s name and address, and expiration date, conditions of use and warnings, batch identification, a list of ingredients, and a guarantee of sterility. The ink should also ideally be packaged for single use.

The other problem is that if the ink is already contaminated, bacteria will grow in it whether it is opened or not. The longer the ink stands, the more the bacteria can multiply. In 2019 the FDA issued a warning that during a routine inspection, six brands of tattoo ink had been found with microorganisms inside. It publicly listed the ink brands and their lot numbers.

Some of my favourite designs, tattoo books and aftercare products, selected for you

working on tattoo at my studio
Working at the studio on one of my projects

Thank you for reading my article, I hope that you have found it helpful. If you would have trouble finding ideas for your tattoo, wonder what is meaning of design that you have found or what to buy for aftercare, to make sure that your tattoo will be healing quickly and easily, here are some of my favorite products in one place, hope that this will also help.

Deasign and tattoo ideas

For some ideas you can have a look at those 3 books with hundreds of designs that I use with my Clients, they are available on Amazon for Kindle or in classic, paper version (links below):

Tattoo meaning

If you would like to read more about the meaning of different tattoo styles and designs before you will decide what you would like to have, I can recommend a book that was really useful for me when I was starting my tattoo adventure – it’s “Conscious Ink: The Hidden Meaning of Tattoos” by Lisa Barretta (through the link you can find it on Amazon for around $10).

Tattoo aftercare

The skin at the tattoo site often dries out. To prevent it and speed up healing for my Clients, I usually recommend one of those tattoo aftercare balms (you can find them on Amazon):

Looking for more info about tattoos? I might have them covered!

I have written almost 100 articles about tattooing – with details about each body part, problems that you might have with your tattoo, designs, styles, aftercare, and much more.

Have a look at the search option and see if you can find what you need here.

other posts from  InkArtByKate
Some of my other articles, check them and see if you could find what you are looking for!

Conclusions

Expiry dates for tattoo inks are not a straightforward issue. While many of these might not degrade significantly over time, they can still become unsafe to use after a certain period.

Expiry dates are generally intended to protect consumers’ health and safety and may err on the conservative side. The use of expired products carries a much greater legal risk if something goes wrong and can never be recommended.

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