Manufacture of Carbon Black appears to be a mystery many who administer it in the form of a tattoo. The following information is intended to clarify and demystify the manufacturing process and help educate individuals that provide any type of tattooing service.

Carbon black is manufactured by either the thermal-oxidative decomposition process or thermal decomposition. These processes use two elements heat and decomposition. Each of these stages will  determine the difference between each production process. The preferred feedstock (raw material) uses heavy oil with a high content of aromatic hydrocarbons in a process known as furnace black. The aromatic form of carbon gives the greatest carbon-to-hydrogen ratio to maximise the available carbon, and this is the most efficient process in terms of Carbon Black yields. Other useful raw materials include distillates from coal tar (carbo-chemical oils) or residual oils that are created by catalytic cracking of mineral oil fractions and olefines manufactured by the thermal cracking of naphta or gasoil (petrochemical oil) (Donnet, 1993).

Thermal-Oxidative Decomposition

All carbon black is made on an industrial scale. Meaning this is a mass production process and very large scale. Carbon black as a drystuff (dry particle) feeds into an immense industrial manufacturing industry with applications ranging from car tyres, printer inks and of course the same carbon black is also used to manufacture tattoo pigment. The end use tattoo pigment product manufacturer is not the drystuff manufacturer, the carbon black drystuff  is supplied to industry for further processing.

Manufacturing Methods

Let’s first take a look at the raw material manufacture and discover how Carbon Black (CB) is produced. There are three main manufacturing processes under this chemical process: furnace black process, Degussa gas black process and lamp black process. The following information describes all three processes individually.

Furnace Black Process – The Furnace Black method feedstock and heat sourse, uses liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons from natural gas. The feedstock is sprayed into a heat source that is generated by the combustion of the natural gas and pre-heated air, the very high temperature reaction is confined to a refractory-lined furnace, creating furnace black. After the Carbon Black is formed, it is passes through a heat exchanger for cooling and processing. The furnace black particles range in size from 10 to 80 nm (Donnet, 1993).

Degussa Gas Black Process – Uses oil as the feedstock. The oil is heated in large drums to create  vapours that are carried by a hydrogen-rich gas into a gas tube where the individual flames impinge on the surface of the drum, with a portion of the Carbon Black being enters the fillter for cooling and processing. The gas black particles range in size from 10 to 30 nm and are mainly (Donnet, 1993).

Lastly, the Lamp Black Process – This is the oldest commercial Carbon Black production process. It uses a cast-iron pan that holds the liquid feedstock, with a furnace fire lined with refractory bricks. The air supply in the furnace is controlled by a vacuum to maximise the Carbon Black combustion process.

These Carbon Black particle size ranges from 60 to over 200 nm and are widely used in special applications (Donnet, 1993).

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

It is suggested that the Carbon black produced by incomplete combustion generates a variance in particle sizes, purities, structures, surface areas, and adhered chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  Due to the process to create carbon black, and it’s use in the production of tattoo inks, similar variations in PAH concentrations are observed in black inks (Danish EPA, 2012). PAHs aren’t the only concern in the formulation of tattoo inks. In addition to PAHs, various ingredients or chemicals are combined to create tattoo ink formaulations. These may include but not limited to the following; dispersants, solvents, binders, antifoaming agents, wetting agents, rheological modifiers to control viscosity, pH modifiers, alcohol or biocides to prevent microbiological growth (Jacobsen & Clausen, 2015).

Effects On Our Immune System

Effects and degradation polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other ingredients have on our immune system, skin cells and organs. Interestingly, surveys and data indicate that 15% of the whole population is tattooed, with this proportion nearly doubling for young to middle aged people. Figures of tattooed individuals are similar in the United States (Laumann & Derick, 2006) and Australia (Makkai & McAllister, 2001).

A survey in German speaking countries showed that tattooed people have many (28%; ≥4) and large (36%; ≥900 cm2) tattoos which required the injection of several grams of tattoo ink into the skin and this probably spread to other parts of the human body and have a lifelong stay in the tissues (Klügl, Hiller, Landthaler, & Bäumler, 2010). One of the main problems associated with the tattoos are skin problems and this range from itching, burning, skin papules, small nodules, eczema, and redness of skin. Some individuals also complain of burning and itchiness of the skin when the tattoo is exposed to sunlight (Hogsberg, Hutton Carlsen, & Serup, 2013).

Effects on the tattoo wearer

The existence of long-lasting PAHs in skin of the tattoo wearer is not well understood. It is known that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons PAHs can absorb UV radiation which result in the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). (Bao et al., 2009; Regensburger et al., 2010).

The risks to the tattoo wearer may come from the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) through activation of inflammatory cells during the implantation  of tattoo inks into the skin. Any surface defects on particles may be involved in the catalysis of ROS. The release of redox-active metal ions from tattoo particles can also lead to the formation of biological reductants involved in the redox cycle, ROS production and carcinogenesis. (Bolton, Trush, Penning, Dryhurst, & Monks, 2000; Jacobsen & Clausen, 2015).

Although the skin is the target organ for tattoo ink, it spreads beyond the skin and reaches the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes consequently become pigmented and result in an impaired lymphatic system (Moehrle, Blaheta, & Ruck, 2001; Zirkin, Avinoach, & Edelwitz, 2001).


PAHs contained in the Carbon Black used in the manufacture of tattoo ink also cause varied allergic reaction which can be broadly classified into acute inflammatory reactions, allergic hypersensitivities, and granulomatous, lichenoid, and pseudolymphomatous types of reactions (Kaur, Kirby, & Maibach, 2009). Short-term inflammation is a normal reaction to tattoo ink injection, however, it has been shown that inflammatory-immune-allergic response to tattoos can occur months or even years after the procedure. This response manifests itself through numerous conditions, including an eczema-like skin inflammation. Immune reactions to tattoos can result in plaque-like (lichenoid) or firm, nodule-like (granulomatous) areas of inflammation and proliferation of skin and immune cells (McFadden, Lyberg, & Hensten-Pettersen, 1989). The onset of these reactions can range from weeks to years and these conditions may mimic skin cancer carcinomas and require skin biopsies to fully describe them (Malki, Onnis, Lissia, Montesu, & Satta, 2017).

The particles in the tattoo ink that are greater than 10 nm may also be transported in blood and this will not filter in the glomerular filtrate and thus will be carried in blood into other organs such as such as the liver, spleen, and kidney where they end up being deposited, with experiments in tattooed mice confirming this (Sepehri, Sejersen, Qvortrup, Lerche, & Serup, 2017).

Inflammatory responses

The dermis of the skin is rich in immunological cells such as macrophages, neutrophils and T cells. The introduction of the carbon black particles in the dermis activates the macrophages which move in to phagocytose the particles as part of the natural immunological process to get rid of any foreign matter. The phagocytosed ink is then retained in the vacuoles of the macrophages and when they die they release the ink to be phagocytosed by new macrophages hence sustaining the tattoo (Baranska et al., 2018). The small particles engulfed by the immunological cells are also transported to the lymph nodes, resulting to accumulation of ink containing cells in the lymph nodes (Schreiver et al., 2017).


Tattoo inks contain substances that are either mutagenic and/or carcinogenic (cancer causing). PAH benz[a] pyrene has been found in some ink samples with a mean concentration of 0.3 lg ⁄ g. and has recently been classified as a group 1 carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (Straif et al., 2005).  Cases of tumors developing in tattooed areas have been reported and include the skin cancer categories of squamous cell carcinoma and keratoacanthoma, as well as pseudoepitheliomatous hyperplasia, a non-cancerous proliferation of skin cells. Some evidence suggests that among tattooed individuals, these lesions appear most often in tattoo areas containing red ink (Piccinini, Pakalin, Contor, Bianchi, & Senaldi, 2016). Taken together, research suggests that tattoos may possibly increase the risk for cancer, though the actual magnitude of the risk is unknown. Given the extremely large number of tattoos and the relatively small number of reported tattoo-associated skin cancers, the skin cancer risk from tattoos is unlikely to be extremely large.

Lymph Nodes

Tattoos with Carbon Black may also interfere with diagnosis since  the lymph nodes may become discolored and inflamed with the presence of tattoo pigment particles. Discoloration and inflammation are also visual indicators for most cancers. This factor may make diagnosing cancer in a patient with tattoos more challenging, and special precautions must be taken to avoid misdiagnoses.  (Schlager, Laser, Melamed, & Guth, 2008).


There is a worldwide increase in the number of individuals with tattoos, with Carbon Black being one of the choice pigments used in the tattoo process. The carbon Black is not sold in the pharmacies but is largely sold online, with no regulatory requirements on its ingredients. There is equally limited data on the deleterious effects of use of Carbon Black in tattoo ink. However, it has been shown that black tattoo inks may contain a multitude of chemicals, including carcinogens and allergens, some of which have unknown toxicology’s and thus there is need to characterise the tattoo ink to establish its chemical composition of the inks before they are used for tattoos. As the world is transitioning to synthetic dyes and pigments these ingredients will become less of a concern in manufacturing of inks. The main emphasis is for practitioners to purchase reputable, tested brands that comply with the new European REACH regulations to ensure the safety of the public.

About the Author of this article:

Based in Perth, Western Australia, Christine Comans is a degree qualified Aesthetic Clinician, trainer, educator and author, who works in an Allied Health role. Chris is a strong advocate for industry standards and is renowned for her love of learning and sharing her knowledge.




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