Whether you’re a newbie tattoo artist or just worried about getting your first ever tattoo, you might be wondering about the ink. Does it go bad? Should you request brand new ink? And what is the industry standard for tattoo ink?
This guide explains it all, including when exactly tattoo ink expires and why it’s important to never let expired tattoo ink touch your skin!
Of course, if you have any real concerns about the ink used, you should talk to the tattoo artist who will be etching your design permanently into your skin.
When Does Tattoo Ink Go Bad?
Does ink even expire? Yes, to both meanings of the question.
The ink that’s in your body won’t technically “expire”, but it will fade with exposure to UV rays and the natural aging process. If this is the kind of expiration you’re worried about, the fix is easy: go get a tattoo artist to do a touch-up session.
The other meaning of this question (does tattoo ink in the bottle, used by the tattoo artist, expire) is a little harder to answer.
The simple answer is yes, tattoo ink does expire. But when and how depend on numerous factors. All tattoo ink comes with an expiration date. No tattoo artist should ever use tattoo ink after it has passed that date.
But just like milk in your fridge, it can certainly go off before the expiration date!
Factors that can cause tattoo ink to expire:
- Incorrect storage,
- Really old tattoo ink,
- Bacterial contamination.
Signs That the Tattoo Ink Has Expired
To be really technical, the components in tattoo ink do not expire by themselves, whether you use pre-dispersed ink (the kind that’s wet and ready to go) or powdered ink (the kind you need to mix up at the studio).
The color pigments (these can be plastic, metals, and other compounds) are mixed with a liquid (usually an alcohol or water) to create an ink. Both materials won’t “go off” over time, but they can split which makes the ink unusable.
The liquid tends to evaporate over time too.
Tattoo ink also becomes unusable (AKA expires) when the tattoo ink is contaminated. Once it is contaminated, bacteria can grow in the ink, and it will cause an infection when it is needled into your skin.
To summarize the signs that the ink has expired:
- It is past the expiration date set by the manufacturer,
- The liquid has split, leaving liquid and solids separate,
- The liquid has evaporated so it’s thicker or solid,
- It wasn’t stored correctly,
- There was a potential moment when it could have been contaminated.
If there is even a chance that the ink could have been contaminated, the tattoo artist should throw it away.
How Common Are Expired Tattoo Inks?
Most manufacturers put the expiration date at 2 years… but many tattoo parlors will have finished the ink way before then. It really depends on the tattoo artist.
An artist who only works in shades of black and grey, will go through just one or two colors very quickly.
Meanwhile, a tattoo artist who specializes in photorealism will use a wide spectrum of colors… but only use a small amount of each. This means the ink will last the artist a lot longer, and it has more time to “go off”.
We should point out that although tattoo inks are not regulated by the FDA, they are regulated by state jurisdiction. Overall, the tattoo industry in the US runs at a high standard and contaminations are pretty uncommon. Any reputable tattoo artist won’t use expired inks and you can always ask them to use fresh ink if you are concerned!
What Makes Tattoo Ink Expire Quickly
We’ve already confirmed that it’s contamination that makes tattoo ink expire. But how does that work exactly?
To start with, tattoo ink should be bottled in a sterile environment so there are no contaminants from when the ink leaves the manufacturer. Some examples of tattoo ink-making companies that maintain rigorous hygiene standards include:
- Intenze – they use a 3rd party sterilization facility to sterilize all their inks.
- Dynamic Color – this company provides the safety data sheet (SDS) for their inks, showing the protective measures and safety precautions they’ve taken.
- StarBrite Colors – all their inks are made in a certified clean room and are gamma treated to sterilize the ink.
Once you have the tattoo ink, it should be stored as directed. Usually this just means storing the ink in a sterile, cool, and dark place. But you should also ensure that the ink is sealed.
Every time the bottle is unsealed, air from the tattoo parlor reaches the ink. This air contains contaminants from the tattoo artist and customer’s breath, for example. So, minimizing exposure to the air is an important step in keeping the ink fresh.
Take Expiration Dates Seriously
The expiration dates on pre-dispersed ink aren’t just for the ink itself. Often, it is also an expiration date for the packaging. The bottle itself, the lid, and the seals will slowly deteriorate over time. So, once the expiration date has passed, you should still throw away the ink even if it doesn’t appear contaminated or expired.
The container itself could start contaminating the ink after that point!
3 Reasons Why You DON’T Want a Tattoo with Expired Ink
When tattoo ink has expired, whether it’s contaminated, split, or just past the expiration date, there can be severe consequences when it’s inked into your skin.
Dull Tattoo Results
One of the minor side effects of using old ink is that you get dull results. Fresh ink provides vibrant colors and shades that really stand out. But old, expired ink creates dull tattoos.
Furthermore, when the liquid starts to evaporate out of the ink, the texture of the ink changes. Tattoo artists who distill the ink with more water or alcohol not only increase the risks of contamination, but thin the ink out. Ink that’s too thin won’t be held by your skin very well, resulting in poor designs.
Also Read: What Happens If A Tattoo Artist Messed Up?
This one is the most obvious! Ink that has been contaminated with bacteria can then cause a bacterial infection on your skin where the tattoo is.
Signs of a bacterial infection include: excessive redness, swelling, pus, and bumps. You might also get the chills or a fever. Tattoos are naturally sore, like sunburn, and scab over as they heal. But if you notice any other symptoms, you may have an infection that needs treating. A course of antibiotics should clear it up.
Although very unlikely, it’s not impossible for very badly contaminated tattoo ink to infect you with non-tuberculous mycobacteria, hepatitis, and tetanus.
The bacteria that have contaminated the ink won’t just cause a bad infection. By disrupting the healing process, the bacteria can distort the ink and even cause permanent scarring.
This is by far the worst side effect of using expired ink and it’s why a tattoo artist should never take the risk with old ink. Permanent scars are serious. Imagine if you’d had a whole back tattoo, and the area got an infection. The scars it could leave would be very difficult to cover up!
Temporary Tattoos Are More Resilient
If getting tattooed with bad and old ink is a real concern for you, then you should try temporary tattoos first. They last anywhere from a week to a few months, depending on the brand, and they let you try out having a tattoo without the commitment.
Another thing that’s great about temporary tattoos is that they can outlast traditional ink for tattoos. While the average life of tattoo ink is 2 years, temporary tattoos can sit happily on their backing paper for at least twice that time.
So long as you don’t expose the temporary tattoos to heat and moisture, they will continue to last. Keep them in a dry, dark space (like the back of a cupboard) to keep them for as long as possible. You can also contact the maker of the temporary tattoos to find out how long they think the temp tatts will last in storage.
Tattoo Ink FAQs
Is pre-dispersed ink safer than powdered?
Yes, pre-dispersed ink is generally safer and less likely to be contaminated. The inorganic ink components were mixed with the liquid in a sterile environment to create the pre-dispersed ink. However, the powdered ink needs to be mixed by the tattoo artist, who may not have a clean room and means to sterilize the ink afterwards.
How long is the shelf-life of tattoo ink?
The average is around 2 years, but each manufacturer should print an expiration date on individual ink bottles. If an ink seller doesn’t provide expiration dates, avoid buying their ink.
Does expired tattoo ink hurt?
The pain of getting a tattoo will be the same, whether they use expired or fresh ink. However, the bacterial infection caused by expired ink will be incredibly painful and may even cause permanent scarring in severe cases.
Can you use expired tattoo needles?
Just like expired tattoo ink, you shouldn’t use expired tattoo needles. Once the needles have expired, they may no longer provide protection from infections, or they may become contaminated. The needle will look the same, so you must judge on the expiration date instead of appearances.
How can you tell if tattoo ink has expired?
These are the visual signs you will see in the ink:
- The ink has split with solids and liquids separated,
- It has a really thick texture,
- It has a bad odor,
- The bottle is overflowing.
However, often there are no visual signs when an ink has expired. That’s why you should always throw the ink away once it hits the expiration date or you believe it may have been contaminated.
Conclusion – Does Tattoo Ink Expire?
The components of tattoo ink do not expire, but they do have an expiration date. The tattoo ink can become contaminated, split, or evaporate which makes it unsuitable for use.
Never use tattoo ink that has been contaminated or is past the expiration date – the consequences include serious bacterial infections and permanent scarring.
If you are concerned, ask your tattoo artist to check the expiration dates before they ink you, or request that they buy fresh ink for your tattoo (keep in mind that they might charge extra for this if their usual ink is still fine to use).