Why Do Cosmetic Tattoos Change Colour? - (Part 1)

by Andrea Darby - Master Medical Tattooist & Industry Educator
Why Do Cosmetic Tattoos Change Colour

Why do tattoo pigments fade or change colour and why do technicians sometimes get unexpected effects or colour outcomes after cosmetic tattooing?

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We receive more enquires from Cosmetic Tattooists about this particular topic than any other subject, it seems that many within the industry including pigment manufacturers are vexed by this particular question. Unfortunately there is a great deal of misleading information about tattoo pigments being published on the internet and a fair proportion of it has been produced or is reproduced by members of the industry.

In this 2 part article we discuss some of the more common and interesting reasons why your cosmetic tattooing may fade, change colour, or result in unexpected effects and colour outcomes either soon after tattooing or in the longer term. Although we touch on some associated topics this article is not intended to be a comprehensive discussion about all the potential risks associated with tattoo pigments; such as sterility, adulteration, potential health effects etc.

Background Information

There are some common misconceptions that we see and hear from industry members about the nature of the cosmetic tattoo pigments that we use, so to begin with lets clear up a few of those misconceptions.

Question: What Ingredients do Cosmetic Tattoo Pigments normally contain?

Answer: Cosmetic Tattoo pigments are generally composed of individual or mixtures of organic and or inorganic colourants that have low solubility, i.e. they are manufactured from solid powders that are difficult to dissolve.

Typically they contain ingredients such as;

  • Iron oxides
  • Other metal hydr/oxides & compounds - e.g. titanium, chromium, copper etc
  • 'Lakes' sometimes called lac  - which are soluble dyes that are precipitated into a less soluble solid with the addition of a metal salt
  • Some azo dyes
  • Carbon

The raw colourants that are used need to be solids that have low solubility or else they would easily dissolve in the extracellular bodily fluids and spread under the skin. Because the colourants are solid powders they need to be turned into a liquid suspension to make it possible to implant the pigment into the skin with the tattoo device, so the colourants are mixed with water and thickening agents such as glycerine which keep the colourant powders in suspension, and either isopropyl alcohol or ethanol alcohol is usually added as an antimicrobial agent.

It is worth noting that even among the most durable industrial pigments that are used in paints, plastics, ceramics and glass wear all pigments fade over time no matter how robust the pigment is or what ingredients are used. For example you could purchase the best quality paint available and paint the exterior of your house and in 5, 10, or 15 years time the colour will have faded and you will notice a deterioration in the general appearance.

Cosmetic tattoo pigments cannot and should not be sourced from the very robust ingredients used in industrial colourants because many of them are highly toxic and contain substances such as heavy metals and aromatic amines which would be harmful to human health. Reputable manufacturers of cosmetic tattoo pigments need to select their colourant additives from a very narrow range of ingredients to minimise the risk of skin reactions and toxicity. Unfortunately the downside to selecting safer ingredients is that there are a narrower range of colourant hues to chose from and the colourants often fade faster, however we are sure you will agree that this is a more than reasonable trade off to provide a safer product.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic pigments and which one is safer?

Answer: The first thing you need to be aware of is that the use of the term "Organic" in relation to tattoo pigments has nothing to do with being healthy or having a natural origin. The food industry has done such a good job of marketing organic food products that people now automatically associate "organic" with being free from harmful chemicals and being healthier. In spite of what you may have read on various websites an organic pigment is not a pigment that comes from a natural or healthier source.

An organic pigment is merely one that contains both carbon and hydrogen within its chemical structure, virtually all colourants used for tattoo pigments are produced synthetically (in the lab) regardless if they are organic (containing carbon and hydrogen atoms) or inorganic.

Inorganic Colourants - are primarily sourced from iron and other metal oxides and they are generally the duller more earthy tones and not as vivid and bold as some of the organic colourants. Titanium dioxide, which is white in its raw form, is often added to lighten and soften the colour of pigment mixtures.

Organic Colourants - may include some lakes and azo dyes and other compounds. Organic colourants are often used because they can provide very vivid bold colours and hues that may not be achievable from the inorganic colourant ingredients.

In spite of the deceptive name "organic" in general there is potentially more risk of either short term or longer term adverse skin reactions and other possible health effects from the range of organic colourants than from the inorganic colourants. However some colours and hues simply may not be achievable by only using the inorganic colourants, for example some of the bright yellows which are often used in corrective pigments.

Fortunately Cosmetic Tattooists tend to use softer more muted hues and can therefore preferentially use inorganic colourants more often, but in contrast the body art industry frequently use vivid colours and therefore they need to include more of the organic colourants in their pigment mixtures.

Question: Are the names given to the various pigment colours standardised?

Answer: No, there is no relationship between the name that a manufacturer gives to a particular pigment blend and any form of standardised naming system. For example a pigment named "Honey Blonde" from one manufacturer will most likely be a completely different colourant mixture if the same name is used by another pigment manufacturer. Names are given to pigments purely as a descriptive title, a marketing term, and perhaps to help you remember the colour more easily next time you use it.

A manufacturer could just as easily give their pigment mixtures a number rather than a name, but then again what pigment name would you prefer to offer a client "301B-78" or "Raspberry Lip"?

Question: How does the clients own skin colour affect the final healed tattoo colour?

Answer: In three main ways;

  • The clients skin undertone - The undertone is affected by vascular supply, with oxygenated blood providing bright red through to maroon colours and deoxygenated blood providing blue through to maroon colours. Blood vessel walls can range between red, maroon and turquoise. Fat cells and connective tissue can add yellow or white hues. Melanin can sometimes be found within the dermis and can appear, yellow, reddish, brown, black, and even blue or grey depending on how deep the melanin is within the dermis.

    The clients under-tone will add colour to the final healed colour of the tattoo from beneath, surrounding, and above the tattoo pigment.
  • The clients outer skin tone - the epidermis may range in colour from white through to yellowish. Melanin within keratinocyte cells in the epidermis can also add yellow, reddish, brown, and black hues to the skin.

    We have deliberately used the term 'outer skin tone' here because it is descriptive of the relationship between the location of the tattoo pigment (in the dermis) and any colour influences within the upper region of the dermis and the epidermis above the tattoo pigment. There are important reasons for distinguishing the location of the natural skins hues relative to the tattoo pigment which we will discuss further in this article.

    The clients outer-tone will add colour to the final healed colour of the tattoo from above the tattoo pigment, high levels of melanin in the upper part of the dermis and the epidermis can have a dramatic effect on the final healed colour of the tattoo and may even obscure the tattoo pigment completely. You can see from the illustration below that whilst cosmetic tattooist frequently talk about the clients undertones it is strong colour influences in the skin above the tattoo pigment which will have the most profound effect on the final healed colour of the tattoo.

Skin Under & Outer Tones

  • Pigment Fixation - As the bodies immune cells surround and fixate the tattoo pigment and once the healing process is completed the final healed tattoo colour will tend to be slightly altered. This occurs even without the influence of any under-tones and outer-tones, this is because of the wrapping of specialised cells around the pigment reducing light reflection back from the tattoo pigment and increasing the scattering of light within the skin. You could liken this to how an object appears to change colour under water or if you wrapped an object in several layers of cling film.

    As the pigment becomes fixated within the skin it will go though changes in appearance, initially the colour may look too bold because there is excess pigment in the epidermis that will be lost during the 27-28 day keratinisation cycle and also because initially the pigment in the dermis has not yet been surrounded by the immune system cells.

    Within a few hours to a few days the pigment may be obscured or look patchy due to tissue swelling and clusters of immune cells surrounding the pigment attempting to break it down. By day 10-14 the pigment colour should begin to bloom back as swelling disappears and the concentration of immune cells around the pigment reduce in number and begin to be replaced by longer term fixating structures.

    Within 28-42 days after tattooing the final healed tattoo colour will be evident inclusive of the natural skin colour influences mentioned above.

Information Supplied by Pigment Manufacturers

We feel that pigment manufacturers could supply cosmetic tattooists more information about their pigment mixtures to enable them to better understand the inherent properties of the pigments that they purchase and use. Presently you may find it easier to obtain information about the properties of a household paint than you will be able to find out about some of the tattoo pigment that you are supplied to implant into a persons skin, in our view this is a situation that could be improved.

The larger more reputable pigment manufacturers will often supply Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) with their products which you should become familiar with because they contain useful information about toxicity, pH (acidity or alkalinity of the mixture), safe handling & safety precautions and emergency advice. More often than not they also supply rudimentary colour swatches, some basic information on the range of applications, and some have even gone to the expense of conducting allergy testing, in most cases that is the extent of information supplied by the manufacturer.

Question: What information is usually not supplied by the manufacturers that could be supplied?

Answer: In our view there is a range of additional information that the manufacturers could supply to the technician to enable them to have a deeper understanding about the inherent properties of their pigments, which in turn would assist the technician to achieve more predictable outcomes for the client. The benefit of having this additional information will become clearer as you read through the various causes of tattoo colour changes detailed further below.

For example;

Batch Colorimetric Sampling
- Providing customers basic CIE RGB colour space readings for each pigment batch and the standard deviation of the batch from a pigment colours manufacturing control would enable the technician to compare the colour variability from batch to batch of one manufacturer to another. In other words a quantifiable reading of the pigment colour and how much its colour differs from previous batches of the same pigment.

We ourselves have put an extensive amount of effort into creating software, the Virtual Pigment Mixer™, which assist our customers to achieve more predictable outcomes when using pigments in different skin colours, however unless the manufacturers provide accurate and reliable colorimetric readings for their pigment batches our actual colour input can only be an estimate of the actual pigment colour.

The Lightfastness of Each Colourant Additive
- The Lightfastness of a colourant refers to its resistance to fading when exposed to UV light over a given period of time, there are different standards used for a lightfast rating but usually they are quoted as a number on a logarithmic scale between 0-8 with 0 being very poor colour retention (extreme fading) and 8 being very good colour retention (no fading).

Particle Size
- The mean particle size and standard deviation for the pigment mixtures.

Risk Rating
- Presently we do not have a risk assessment scale for the various colourants that are in use by the manufacturers, the ethical manufacturers restrict their ingredients to those that the health regulators do not exclude or advise against the use of, and or define as acceptable for use either in the production of cosmetics or tattoo pigments. However within the list of ingredients that are in use there are still some ingredients that appear to present a greater potential risk of skin reactions and or health affects than others. For example the detectable level of heavy metals and the use of some azo dyes would factor in such a rating scale.

If pigment manufacturers categorised their pigments according to an agreed industry wide risk rating scale for those ingredients (within the accepted use list) then technicians and their clients could make the choice to preferentially use pigment brands and colour mixes with the lowest potential risk. It is important to note that the more restrictive a manufacturer is with their colourant ingredients the smaller their potential range of pigment colours becomes.

Migration Resistance
- commercial inks and dyes are sometimes rated for their bleed-resistance which provides an indication of the propensity for the different coloured inks or dyes to run into each other or to spread out on the dyed surface. For example if the inks in your home printer tended to bleed on the paper then the print out would look ill-defined or smudgy an effect which is sometimes referred to as ink feathering or bleeding. Bleed resistance ratings are not directly applicable to tattooing because human skin does not behave like fabric or paper, for this reason a defined rating scale which identifies the tendency, or not, of a pigment to migrate within the skin and or run into adjacent colours within the skin (similar to bleed-resistance), would be very useful.

The Pigments Dominant Hue
- Particularly with dark pigments such as dark browns, greys, and blacks, the dominant hue may not be immediately obvious and if the manufacturer does not provide this information then each and every technician who uses the product will need to assess the dominant hue prior to use.

Now that we have mentioned some background information lets discuss some of the reasons why your cosmetic tattooing may produce unexpected results.

Potential Causes of Cosmetic Tattoo Colour Changes

For simplicity sake we will group the potential causes of colour change according to 4 main areas;

  • Factors Related to the Pigment Characteristics
  • Factors Related to the Methods & Techniques of the Tattooist
  • Factors Intrinsic to the Client
  • Factors Related to the Clients Environment & Medicines

Factors Related to the Pigment Characteristics

Dominant Hue - Cosmetic tattoo pigments are either a single colourant or more often combinations of 2 or more colourant additives sourced from dry powders, when mixed together in suspension the final colour is a composite of the various ingredients.

Tattoo Pigment Colourant Powders

With dark coloured pigments such as blacks, browns, and greys the more concentrated the colour becomes the more difficult it can be to determine the dominant hue of the pigment blend in its raw form.

The quickest way to asses the dominant hue of a dark coloured pigment is to add between 1-3 drips of pigment to a jar filled with 150mls of water, place the lid on the jar and shake and then hold the jar in front of a white sheet of paper in front of a window that has some indirect sunlight coming through. Depending on the type and concentration of the pigment you may need to adjust the amount of pigment in the water between 1-3 drips to achieve a dilute mixture that is the right concentration to reveal its dominant hue.

In the examples below we have chosen 3 black pigments and 3 dark brown pigments which in their concentrated form look quite similar, but as you can see once the pigments are diluted their dominant hues are revealed.

Bluish Black Brownish Black Greenish Black
Bluish Black Pigment Brownish Black Pigment Greenish Black Pigment
Reddish Brown Yellow/Orange Brown Greenish Brown
Reddish Brown Pigment Yellow/Orange Brown Pigment Greenish Brown Pigment

It is important to be aware of the dominant hue for all your pigments because as the pigment fades (in the absence of the other influencing factors) the pigment will tend to fade towards the direction of its dominant hue, and the clients skin tones will also have an increasing influence on the appearance of the tattoo colour as the pigment fades.

Particle Size -  if the colourant particle sizes are too small (<6µm1) there is greater risk of pigment migration (oozing within the skin into unwanted areas) and metabolism / transportation by immune system cells away from the location the pigment was implanted. If pigment migration occurs then in addition to pigment ending up in unwanted areas of the skin you might also experience a perceived colour change as the pigment/skin saturation level reduces, and it may also tend to reveal the pigments dominant hue, this is particularly the case with dark browns, greys, and black pigments.

The images below illustrate this effect, as the concentration / density / saturation of pigment within the skin reduces the pigments dominant hue becomes more obvious which will also be increasingly affected by the underlying skin tone. In this example what has the visual appearance of a dark black pigment mix when it is in high concentration outside of the body can appear to be a dark slate colour through to a brownish grey (depending upon the pigment/skin saturation) when implanted into a typical Caucasian skin colour. As you can see if the pigment particle size is too small and pigment migration, metabolism / transportation occurs this has the potential to cause significant colour change.

Pigment Colour + Skin Colour

»» Reducing Pigment Saturation In the Skin »»

Reducing Pigment Saturation in Skin

Some researchers have also expressed concern about the potential for adverse health effects from nanoparticles within tattoo pigments
2, nanoparticles are generally regarded to be particles with at least one dimension less than 100nm3 (<0.1µm), or in other words smaller in size than 1/10,000 of a millimetre.

Previous testing conducted by researchers for both in vitro (in the lab) and in vivo (in the body) experiments, including biopsies from tattoos, revealed the particle size of general tattoo pigments ranged between 10-5000nm4-6, i.e. 0.01-5µm. They found that black pigments tended to have the smallest particle size, coloured pigments were in the mid range, and white pigments had the largest particle sizes. With the exception of the white pigments most of the tattoo pigments they tested contained significant amounts of nanoparticles, the black pigments were almost pure nanoparticles.

This research correlates with the empirical evidence from the industry where some cosmetic tattooists have observed unexpected pigment migration effects in instances where due care was taken with the procedure, they had not tattooed into a high risk region (e.g. near the canthus of the eye), they had not over traumatised the skin, excessive bleeding was not involved, and healing was otherwise unremarkable.

For the above reasons, technicians could reasonably expect that manufacturers should provide information about mean particle size and standard deviation for the cosmetic tattoo pigments that they supply.

Suspension Quality & Viscosity - Pigments should be blended by the manufacturer so that the solid colourant powders are maintained in an even suspension during the tattoo procedure and during the healing process. Glycerine is generally added to the pigment blend to increase the viscosity of the pigment and help maintain the colourant powders in suspension. If a pigment has too much glycerine it may tend to increase pigment migration and coalescence due to oozing within the skin before pigment fixation occurs. If a pigment has insufficient viscosity due to the absence of or insufficient amount of thickening agents such as glycerine then the colourant powders may drop out of suspension which could result in irregular pigment deposit during tattooing (patchiness). Either of the above circumstances may have an effect on the tattoo final healed colour.

Pigment with low levels of glycerine

In the picture above you can see that the colourant powder in this pigment has completely dropped out of suspension leaving a liquid layer above the powder, this occurred with this particular pigment after only 2-3 days of being left standing.

Lightfastness of Colourants
- As mentioned previously each colourant added to a pigment mixture will have its own Lightfast properties, when a manufacturer blends two or more colourants together it is important for them to have the same or very similar Lightfast properties or else the tattoo will change colour significantly as it fades. For illustration the diagram below shows how a tattoo could progressively change colour if three different colourants were used that had completely different Lightfast properties, rather than using a logarithmic Lightfast scale 0-8 we have simplified the illustration using 1, 2, and 3 year time frames respectively for the complete fading of the three different colourants.

In the Illustration below colourant 1 fades completely after 1 year, colourant 2 fades completely after 2 years and colourant 3 fades completely after 3 years, the surrounding skin colour is a fixed colour throughout and the tattoo colour changes progressively as the various colourants fade out permitting the natural skin colour to have progressively more influence on the tattoo colour.

Pigment Lightfastness Imbalance

The table is purely for illustration purposes and is not intended to represent any actual results, to that end it is an extreme example of a pigment with three completely different durations of Lightfastness so that you can grasp the concept of how colour ingredients fading at different rates could could cause significant colour changes to the tattoo over time. For this reason it would be reasonable for a cosmetic tattooist to expect that pigment manufacturers would provide information about the Lightfastness of each of the colourant ingredients within pigments that they manufacture.

Continue Reading
Why Do Cosmetic Tattoos Change Colour Part 2



Special thanks to Mr. Darren Kelly (chemist) and managing director of Drucegrove Ltd, Mr. Kelly's knowledge of colourants and his clarification of issues pertaining to practical & theoretical chemistry were of great assistance in the creation of this article.


Date of most recent revision: 14/09/2013
Original publication date: 14/09/2013

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The content of this article should be regarded as general information & is provided solely for the purpose of discussion & is not intended to replace cosmetic tattoo training or medical advice in any instance, always check with a cosmetic tattoo master trainer and or a qualified medical practitioner before acting on any information regarding cosmetic tattooing or in relation to any medical condition or medical circumstance.

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