Monday, March 7, 2016

Tattoo Ink Expiration Dates

 Tattoo Nerd,

 Does tattoo ink really expire?


 The answer is both yes and no, but more yes than no.

 Ink is simply a pigment (heavy metals, oxidized metals, plastics, or other materials), mixed with a carrier fluid (usually an alcohol like ethyl alcohol or glycerin and/or distilled water).  The majority of tattooers use pre-dispersed ink (pigment that has been mixed with a carrier, or is wet) sold by a trusted manufacturer.  A few tattooers mix their ink themselves.  Materials are selected based on what will produce the brightest possible and longest lasting color, what is least likely to induce a severe reaction in the body (all materials produce a reaction, resulting in the permanence of the tattoo), what will most easily and evenly go into the skin, and what will be cost-effective to produce.

Expiration Date on Eternal Ink
 Technically, inorganic pigment materials have no expiration.  The carrier fluid will eventually evaporate in most ink-bottles.  The plastic of the bottle and seals will break down enough in time to allow the evaporated fluid to escape.  In theory, adding more carrier fluid to a bottle of ink that has dried out would result in usable dispersed ink.

 But, that is not the way to go.

 Tattoo inks are regulated by the FDA, but it is a regulation that is rarely exercised.  This is because the Tattoo Industry has become very good at self-regulation.  The "shelf-life" of tattoo ink is often around two years, with most tattoo studios using up more common colors well before the expiration date.  The best-practice in reputable shops is to throw expired ink away.  

 The idea of recharging a dried-out bottle of ink may be one considered for monetary reasons.  After all, tattoo ink is one of the most expensive fluids on the market.  On average, a one ounce bottle of premium tattoo ink costs between $8-$10.  For the sake of comparison, an ounce of petroleum for your car is about $.02.  At the time of this writing, an ounce of silver (the precious metal, not silver ink) is about $15.  Again, despite the cost of ink, "recharging" is not the way to go.  Studios that do mix their own ink do not do so for monetary reasons, but rather to have greater control of the color selection and quality (disbursement, longevity) of their ink.

 While the materials in tattoo ink do not technically expire, they can become contaminated.  Assuming that the ink was bottled and sealed in a sterile environment (which may not be the case with some ink manufacturers), ink is exposed to contaminants as soon as the seal is broken.  While the rate of contamination is slight with a bottle that remains capped when not in use, the longer the bottle sits the more contaminants it potentially contains.  When fluid is lost from the bottle, by pouring ink from it for use or due to evaporation, air from the environment replaces the volume of fluid lost.  In the average tattoo studio, that is air which has been in the lungs of several people and has been contaminated by blood-plasma and other organic particles that result from the tattoo process.  

Expiration Date on Intenze
 The expiration date, while arbitrarily determined based on the shelf life of the container and in order to prevent external regulation as well as meet local health-codes governing the tattoo industry, serves as an excellent guide to help minimize the possibility of contamination placing a client at risk. Though the risk is extremely slight, anything we can do to reduce the risk is better for our clients and the industry as a whole. You are best served purchasing ink from manufacturers that use expiration dates, by checking your bottles on a monthly basis, and re-ordering inks that are about the expire in what is hopefully the rare time when an exotic ink nears the end of its shelf life. 

 As an addendum, the best way to know what is a reputable source of ink is to take a look at a few tattoo studios in your area.  Tattoo studios, to stay competitive, quickly move to new products or techniques if it appears that those products give another studio or artist an advantage.  If you don't see your ink (or the ink of your tattooer) being commonly used in other studios, it is best to ask why.  Cheap inks cause more problems than they solve.

 Jason Sorrell is a writer, tattoo artist, satirist, artist, and generally nice guy living in Austin, TX.  He loves answering questions about tattoos.  Shoot him an email at


  1. what if i order some inks online and they arrived expired 2 years ago??

    1. When I order ink online, the first thing I do is check the expiration dates. If the ink were expired, I would demand a refund and never buy from that seller again. Since I only purchase from reputable sellers, I have never had to deal with this situation.

  2. I ordered tattoo ink about 4-5 weeks ago, it was opened once. I got a tattoo (with that ink) today, my cousin was a tattooist and he told me the ink was still fine to use. He said that tattoo ink should be thrown every 3-4 months, but the ink i got by Lizardstar should be fine, if its only been open for a few weeks? I'm freaking out really badly, he got a tattoo with the same ink too.

  3. I have been wrestling with how best to respond to your inquiry. I get that you are freaking out, and ideally I would like to offer some words of consolation to help ease your mind.

    But, I've got nothing. I could write a "things not to do" article about getting a tattoo and base it entirely off what you told me. Let me run through the highlights:

    *If I understand this right, you bought open bottles of tattoo ink.
    *Your tattooer required that you buy your own ink. You have not been trained to know the difference between good tattoo ink and risky tattoo ink.
    *Your tattooer used ink that had already been opened (no idea what has been done to or added to the ink).
    *Your tattooer gave you bad info about expiration dates. Professional-grade tattoo ink has an expiration date, and it is usually a couple of years after the manufacture date.
    *If I had to guess, your tattooer is not a professionally trained tattooer working in a licensed studio.
    *I googled "Lizardstar Tattoo Ink". They have no web-presence that I could find, not even a review. Professional tattooers will not use ink from an unknown and unvetted source.

    My thought is that MAYBE you will be okay. MAYBE the worse thing that you will have is a bad tattoo (faded out, color not holding, etc). You really need to keep an eye on your tattoo, and hope for the best.

    Good luck. I hope this is a lesson learned. Don't cut corners with something you are inserting into your body.

  4. So I got my very first coverup tat from
    My artist, all my tats From him turned out perfect, but this coverup is very sore and the purple ink(intense ink) looks bubbled up and looks like Lil keliods. Is my tattoo infected or am I just allergic to the purple will it clear up I'm very afraid because none of my other tattoos did this just this one cover-up

    1. Cover-ups are almost always more problematic to heal. Technically, a tattoo never really heals (if it did, all the foreign bodies in your skin, the ink, would be gone). The permanence of a tattoo is due to your body isolating the ink that your immune system cannot carry away. Your experience could be just your body responding to an already wounded area being re-traumatized. Your tattooer should be able to offer more concrete guidance about what is going on with the tattoo.

  5. Hi! Is it safe to buy inks from ebay? There is very cheap ink named Solong, i really wonder if even to try. The feedback is either very good ink or total crap.

    1. I've never heard of Solong Ink. That alone would make me avoid it. Their website includes "Mickey Sharps" tattoo machines for $15.00. Those are shoddy fakes. Buy your ink from a reputable supplier.

  6. I have tattoo ink that expired 2/28/2017 should i go ahead and just throw it out. I recently used it not paying attention but the tattoo does not look different from any others. I just felt bad for not paying close attention.

    1. I would get rid of any expired tattoo inks in the shop. I do a weekly check of all my supplies as a part of my routine, throwing out anything that has expired.

  7. I have used expired brand new bottles in the past, only after making sure seals were still air tight!..... if you have a brand new "expired" bottle take off the cap and squeeze it..... if it leaks from the seal it is absolutely to go into the trash..... if not I would say it's fair game as long as you live and work in a state where OSHA doesn't breathe down your throat!.... always redate the bottle. This is often rare as most artists blow through ink like crazy..... for me it's usually an odd ball color I don't frequently use

    1. You make some fair points, Eric. Most tattooers burn through their ink well before the expiration date, and your bottle-squeeze test would effectively detect a leak. My only argument would be about the need in tattooing to maintain high professional standards. I don't cut corners. The price of a tattoo more than covers the expense of a new bottle of ink, so I feel I owe it to my customers to use only the best materials so there is no question about the quality of what they are getting. Making exceptions can be seen as a slippery slope; if you cut this corner, where else may you have decided to make exceptions. I recognize that this may only be a matter of perception, but in tattooing the perception of what we do is a huge part of our success. For me, the best practice is to inspect your inks regularly and get rid of any inks that have expired.