Alcohol in Tattooing Products

June 30, 2016

This is going to be a shorter blog this week, but we wanted to take a little bit of time to talk about alcohol. Or rather, “alcohols”- a whole family of organic compounds. Humans use alcohols for all sorts of applications. For example, we use menthol for pain relief, glycerol for everything from sweetness to antifreeze, and ethanol as a social lubricant.

The fact that ethanol is a psychoactive compound has of course lead to its complicated relationship with tattooing. The ready access of inebriated sailors on shore leave in cities like Honolulu and San Francisco gave tattoo artists tremendous opportunity to hone their craft in the middle and second half of the 20th century. But changing societal mores as well as the difficulty in working with a drunk client has all but terminated the practice (not to mention many US state laws that prohibit artists from tattooing intoxicated clients).

Nonetheless, alcohol is still present in the tattooing process, and it is worth talking about where is would be a good idea to look for alternative options. As we indicated previously, “alcohol” isn’t a single chemical but instead represents a whole family of compounds. Ethanol and isopropanol are probably the most common alcohols in the tattoo shop space, so lets quickly cover what they might be used for.

Both ethanol and isopropanol are used as cleaning products for their antiseptic qualities. Ethanol may also be used as a solvent and carrier, especially for use in tinctures. And it must be said that both ethanol and isopropanol do have a fairly consistent track record for efficacy.

 As an antiseptic, ethanol and isopropanol have proven to be quite handy at tackling bacteria, fungi, and some viruses (a “biocide”)- though they are not effective against bacterial spores and so “are not recommended for sterilization…” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC88911/). Most research indicates that ethanol and isopropanol degrade and/or denature cell membranes. Both alcohols are in widespread use in hand sanitizers and cleaning products, though the FDA has requested that manufacturers of hand sanitizers submit evidence to demonstrate how quickly these alcohols act and their actual biocidal effectiveness. Tattoo artists who use hand sanitizers to “clean” the skin should pay close attention to how manufacturers respond, and should keep in mind that killing topical bacteria and funguses is only part of the “cleaning” process.

Tinctures are most commonly alcoholic extracts of plant matter. Tattoo artists likely only use one tincture with any regularity- tincture of green soap. Tincture of green soap is a typically a 30% ethanol product made with lavandula (lavender) and/or its essential oil. In use in one form or another since the early 20th century, tincture of green soap has been used as a household and institutional cleaning product, as well as a topical skin preparation for surgery. While surgical prep procedure has moved on, tincture of green soap remains available.

Which of course leads to the question- “if alcohols are passable biocides, why should tattoo artists consider anything else for prep or clean-up?”

First, pain. As anyone who as ever attempted to clean a wound with alcohol has learned, alcohol hurts. Research indicates that ethanol and isopropanol potentiate a vallinoid receptor (VR-1) in the skin- the same receptor that is activated by capsicum- and reduces the sensory threshold from 42 degrees C to 34 degrees C (http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v5/n6/abs/nn852.html). We’ve already talked about how heat is an issue in tattooing (see our piece of fluid dynamics)- by reducing the threshold, alcohol increases the burning sensation. Which is not good.

Second, the skin’s response. While there is a huge debate as to whether or not alcohol is inherently “bad” for the skin (and seriously, going down that rabbit hole is a surefire way to lose an afternoon), there are few things that just about all professional dermatologists and researchers agree on when it comes to alcohol and the skin. It definitely dries out the skin, which is not great. In extremely high concentrations, it can be irritating and damaging and so should be handled with caution. And it can definitely cause redness and contact dermatitis in individuals with sensitive skin or allergies.

Third, shipping alcohol is hard. This one has less to do with tattoo artists and more to do with your distributor, but it actually has a bearing on how we as professional tattooers practice our craft. Because of alcohol’s flammability and because of historical, religious, and cultural prohibitions on alcohol as a psychoactive drug, getting alcohol from a manufacturing center to a warehouse and then on to an artist is an involved process that can require additional paperwork and cost. Some distributors won’t carry products that have a certain percentage of alcohol by volume, and there are hard limits on the amount of ethanol and isopropanol you can ship via conventional mail providers.

Fourth, alcohol can slow wound healing. Most physicians advise against the use of ethanol and isopropanol in cleaning open wounds, as the same sorts of attributes that make alcohol an effect biocide can also damage human epithelial cell walls. And because of the activation of VRs-1 in the skin, it can cause additional inflammation- many topical tinctures like Tiger Balm are effective at treating muscle soreness precisely because the cause a (limited) topical reaction, which the body responds to by increasing local circulation and inflammation.

None of this is to say that tattoo artists should cut alcohol out of their toolboxes. Rather, this is to suggest that there are limitations to alcohol’s utility- it is a good for cleaning residue and is a capable biocide up until the moment the skin is broken. Additionally, artists who see their clients react to alcohol should desist immediately- while these reactions are rarely life-threatening, the resultant redness and contact dermatitis can complicate a tattoo session.

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