Are Sharpie Markers Safe For Skin and Tattoos?

Posted on 03 August 2012 by Karen L. Hudson

Sharpie tattoo

For quite some time, I’ve had my concerns about the use of Sharpie (or similar brand) markers on the skin, particularly prior to tattooing. One whiff of the foul tip tells you that it’s full of chemicals, regardless of whatever “non toxic” labeling there may be.  The use of markers, Sharpies in particular, has become a trend in almost all tattoo shops where the artists do custom and/or freehand tattoos. While drawing on the surface of the skin may not present a serious danger, my primary concern was about the chemicals entering the bloodstream once tattooing commenced and the skin was broken. So, I did some research to see just what the markers are made of. 

Marker Ink Chemistry

I actually wrote to Sharpie a few years ago regarding my concerns, and never received a reply. Fortunately, Anne Helmenstine, Ph.D. was able to combine research with her knowledge of chemistry to write a helpful article on the use of Sharpies on skin. She doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the use of Sharpies in tattooing, but she does list the chemicals that the markers contain and how they could potentially affect the body. She also links to Guy Aitchison, who warns, “I DO NOT recommend using red Sharpies or any other red marker, as these dyes, although labeled as non-toxic, tend to cause issues with the healed tattoos, sometimes years later. “  Despite the warning against red markers, Guy says that he’s used Sharpies for years on clients without incident.

Alternative to Sharpies

That said, I’m still not overly comfortable with the idea of having marker ink tattooed into my skin. What’s the point of making sure that tattoo inks are safe if you’re going to introduce something else that’s questionable? There are skin scribes that are safe, sterile, and designed for use on the skin and even for surgical procedures. No, they don’t come in a wide variety of colors – most of them are purple – but I’m quite sure a talented artist can work around that and know what colors to tattoo without having to draw them out first.

It’s Your Choice

It’s up to you to decide how you feel about markers being used on your skin. If you’re okay with it, that’s your choice. If you’re not, then you may need to speak up if your artist plans to use them. Remember, as the client, you’re essentially the “boss” – you say what goes and what doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean the artist has to do things your way; if they disagree, they can simply choose not to tattoo you, so don’t be an ass about it. Just tell them you’re uncomfortable with the use of Sharpies and would they mind using a skin scribe instead?

If they don’t have a skin scribe, that could be a problem – most piercers have them for placement markings, but not many tattoo artists keep them on hand. So, it might be in your best interests to purchase one yourself and bring it to your tattoo session.


About the Guru:
Karen L. Hudson has been writing for the body art community since 1999. She is the author of Chick Ink: 40 Stories of Tattoos--and the Women Who Wear Them and Living Canvas: Your Total Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Body Modification. After leaving her position as's body art expert in 2011, she founded Tat2Guru to continue her efforts as a safety and acceptance advocate for the body art community. Read Her Full Bio

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Stacey Sharp Says:

    I can understand your worry about sharpie markers being used on the skin… however, after using them for over 20 years now to draw on people before tattooing I have to say that I have never encountered one problem, even on people with the most sensitive skin.

    However, this statement sort of bothers me:
    ++I’m quite sure a talented artist can work around that and know what colors to tattoo without having to draw them out first.++

    The use of different colors has absolutely nothing to do with what the final colors will be in a tattoo. In order to draw on the skin without erasing, I’ll draw a basic shape on the arm with the lightest of colors, successively working darker with each color to put in details until I have a finished design that I can use for linework. What colors are used don’t really matter and they’re discarded after use, just like a skin scribe. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

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