What's the Environmental Impact of Tattoos?

I think we can all agree that everything has an environmental impact, right? Including weird things we may not normally think of when we think about the environment. A while back we wrote about this when we talked about the environmental impact of weed, so we figured why not do the same with millennial's second favorite thing? Tattoos.

Don’t worry, this won’t be your grandpa's rant about how tattoos are the literal poison of society, and only sailors and convicts had them in our day. But maybe your grandpa’s angry rant didn’t include some really important points about environmental problems associated with tattoos. Regardless, if you’re thinking of inking, you may want to keep reading (that wasn't supposed to rhyme...no, SERIOUSLY.)

Oh, and while you’re reading just remember that no, we aren’t your grandpa’s equally angry friends trying to discourage you from getting inked!

The Bad

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first!

The biggest and most obvious environmental issue associated with tattoos is the toxicity in the ink. Thanks to the European Commission, we know that it’s commonplace for tattoo inks to have not-so-healthy metals. There’s some metals we’re all already familiar with, like mercury and arsenic, but also some unfamiliar ones. Red ink often has some metal called cadmium. Never heard of it? Me neither, but a quick google search lets us all know that it’s one of the three most toxic metals  (savage right?). By the way if you, a red-blooded American, won’t listen to Europe’s opinion about tattoos, just know that the FDA has said that tattoo inks are also good for printer ink and car paint...great.


For any zero wasters out there, inks also tend to have plastic (also great). Oh, and if you’ve sworn off animal products, tattoo inks also often use glycerin, also known as animal fat. Even worse, black ink is derived from animal bones (like really, could this tick any more unsustainable boxes? But I guess in a way that’s kinda bad ass too…?)

To pour salt in our tattoo wounds, even tattoo removal has historically been pretty shitty for the environment. Why? Because it uses a strong ass greenhouse gas: the hard to read and harder to pronounce “tetrafluoroethane”. This is such a strong GHG that apparently it beats out CO2 (do I really need to say “greeeaaat” again?) In defense of tattoo removal though, this GHG has commonly been replaced with a lighter version...although, that lighter way is liquid CO2. Still shitty, but not as shitty as the one I mentioned but won’t bother trying to spell again. So...baby steps?

The Complicated

If you’re still hellbent on getting a tattoo (or several - no judgement), maybe try to avoid some really heavy metal colors like red. You can also ask around at tattoo parlors to see if they’re willing to use less common types of inks that are non-metallic. Fair warning though: Don’t be too surprised if the alt-inks contain animal products. According to Dermatologist Audrey Kunin, black ink (of the aforementioned animal bone variety) is the safest tattoo color. A safe red may contain, for example, something like carmine (a bug that Queen Bess the first used to make red lipstick - no joke!).

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So if you wanna go cruelty-free, you may have to ask around even more. Animal-friendly tattoo shops certainly exists though, so don’t be too discouraged.

Another thing to keep in mind is how eco-friendly your chosen tattoo parlor is in general. Into animal rights? Gristle Tattoo in Brooklyn, Alchemy Tattoo in LA, and Damask Tattoo in Seattle are examples of shops that all provide plant-based inks rather than conventional ones (told you animal-friendly shops exist!)

Yet ANOTHER alternative is inkbox. It’s a new type of semi-permanent tattoo that lasts up to 18 days, takes about 15 minutes to apply, and is organic and cruelty free. Dunno about you but I’ll drink to that my friends!

The Future of Tattooing

If I’ve totally depressed you with this post, try to remember that if anything, post-tattoo care should be pretty simple (and sustainable)...assuming everything goes well after getting the tattoo anyway (e.g. no skin irritations.) Apparently you can use something as simple as coconut oil to take care of your new tat. BUT! If you're into fancier stuff or skeptical of the coconut oil trend you can always go for something likeGreen Goo's tattoo care balm.

You may be wondering, “Wait...my weed post got a “The Good” subheader. Where’s my good tattoo subheader?!” Sorry y’all but there isn’t exactly a “good” point for tattooing as far as its environmental impact goes.

Are tattoos good for self expression? Lifelong commitment to a piece of art? Funny stories about having too much to drink, or even a bet gone horribly wrong? Sure. But if planet earth were a person, it would probably be giving the middle finger to most things involved with tattooing at the moment.

Hopefully that will change in the future, and since everything else seems to be slowly but surely heading down the sustainability road, we don’t doubt that tattoo will get there soon enough. In the meantime, if you’ve opted out of getting a tattoo for the time being you can #protectyourwild instead by googling eco-themed tattoos (and try not to think about how counterintuitive it is.)


Getting inked:

  • Red ink often contains cadmium, one of the top 3 most toxic metals

  • Black ink is typically made from animal bone

  • Many inks also use animal fat

Tattoo removal also sucks:

  • It uses a strong GHG tetrafluoroethane


  • Vegan tattoo shops that use plant based inks exist! (e.g. Gristle Tattoo in Brooklyn, Alchemy Tattoo in LA, and Damask Tattoo in Seattle)

  • If your gonna get needled, find a safe shop and don’t get your girlfriends name that you’ll want to remove when she dumps yo ass...

  • Alternately, you could use an environmentally friendly temporary tattoo by inkbox

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By Darian Williams, ALDA's Blog and Digital Marketing Specialist Intern