Is It True That Writing on Skin is Unhealthy or Risky?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

In general, occasionally writing on skin with water-based inks is considered non-hazardous. Concern arises when people write on their skin frequently with permanent ink, or with inks that have certain coloring agents. If one is writing on skin on purpose, then using skin paint or skin ink is a far better choice, although even water-based inks may cause some skin irritation for some people.

Writing on skin with water-based ink is not considered harmful.
Writing on skin with water-based ink is not considered harmful.

The primary concern with writing on skin with permanent ink is that permanent ink may contain xylene. Xylene is a toxic substance, though toxicity is normally linked to inhalation. A mark or two of permanent ink on the skin because one is using a permanent pen is not likely to cause significant harm.

Permanent markers contain xylene which is a toxic substance.
Permanent markers contain xylene which is a toxic substance.

People can cause damage to their skin however, by cutting the skin and then writing on skin with a permanent marker. This is a type of amateur tattooing that can be very difficult to get rid of and may cause skin irritation and infection. Usually, if this occurs, one must see a doctor in order to get rid of the marking and treat infections.

Permanent ink can contain xylene, a toxic substance, but a few marks should not cause any health concerns.
Permanent ink can contain xylene, a toxic substance, but a few marks should not cause any health concerns.

Some permanent inks now use an alcohol-based substance instead of xylene. While this is less hazardous than xylene, it still may irritate the nose, throat, mouth and sensitive skin. Both types of permanent ink pens are more hazardous if the ink is ingested or large quantities of ink are inhaled. However, most doctors recommend avoiding writing on skin with any type of permanent ink.

Further if one has a child writing on skin with permanent ink, it is very important to ignore most Internet advice given for removing such writing. It will fade in time, or many use alcohol handwash to diminish appearance. Many people suggest using bleach, but this is a very unsafe practice that can further damage skin, and can also be dangerous in small amounts if inhaled.

If a child seems to be unable to avoid writing on skin, keep only water-based, non-toxic markers on hand. Conversely, let the child write on his or her skin with specially designed non-toxic body paint or inks. Water-based inks tend to be easily removed as well.

Scented inks, popular with children, are not a good choice. These, too, can be permanent and may contain xylene or other solvents. As well they may encourage young children to eat their art or suck on the markers. Ingestion of xylene is hazardous.

Dyes in inks can also be a potential irritant. Some inks will now only work on special paper and these are probably the best for children who want to write on themselves or the walls, for instance. With regular inks, such as those used in ballpoint pens, writing on skin is not considered dangerous, though the occasional person might be irritated by the dyes in inks. Normally for such ink to be considered poisonous, one would have to ingest three or four penfuls of ink. The occasional writing on skin with a ballpoint pen, uses a tiny amount of ink, and is thus not considered harmful.

Most doctors advise people not to write on their skin with any kind of permanent ink.
Most doctors advise people not to write on their skin with any kind of permanent ink.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


For some reason, I put a Sharpie on my hand and now looking at that hand. Compared to my other hand that I barely put any on, the one without as much sharpie looks normal and the same color that it used to be, and then I look at the other. My hand that I put quite a bit of Sharpie on is darker, has a big bump on it, and has some small cuts. I think that there is something wrong.


I have sensitive skin. Do expo markers hurt me?


Is it okay to write with black Expo dry erase original chisel point markers on your skin? It doesn't get smeared, which is why I like it, but is it safe?


In reality, it's not going to do anything if you're just doing simple doodles. On the safe side, I wouldn't draw directly above your veins in case it seeps into your skin.


So we can't die from writing on our skin?


Just because you've done it to yourself or your friends and nothing happened doesn't mean that people don't have negative reactions to ink on their skin.

And yes, it does get absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. To think otherwise is just absurd.

When I get ink from a pen, marker, sharpie, etc on my skin, I get incredibly painful, throbbing migraines that last for days. The only time this ever happens is when I get ink on my skin (unless I wash it off immediately). I don't have any reactions on the skin itself, but the pain from the migraines can be so intense that I am absolutely immobilized until they are gone. And in most cases, painkillers do not help.

Not everyone's bodies will react in the same way. Also, just because you don't have an allergy now doesn't mean you can't develop one in the future.


I write every day over some old grazes, but it became really itchy and so I removed the ink that I drew over every day in the same place, and saw there were small colorless lumps. They're itchy but not painful. I don't know if this is serious or not since articles only say it's dangerous if penfuls are used or ingested. I've used ballpoint, etc. on the same place, same design, for ages.


You're not going to die from it. I've been doing it since I was little and it really ticks me off when people warn me I'm going to have dire complications and end up in hospital or something idiotic like that.


For those who think you can't absorb anything through your skin and into your bloodstream, how do you think contraceptive patches and nicotine patches work?

Yes, our skin absorbs a portion of the things we put on it, from lotions to inks. And no, you probably aren't ever going to have any kind of measurable, immediate reaction unless you're allergic. That doesn't mean that down the road you might not have problems with cancer, infertility or any number of other problems from accumulated toxins in your body.


ACTUALLY, 164679, you are correct that we ingest through our mouths; however, our skin does have the capability to absorb. No, you do not absorb water from washing your hands because the exposure is too short. However, if you have ever sat in a bathtub and experienced "wrinkly skin" you know that our "barrier" skin can easily be bypassed. To use similar syntax:

How do you think lotions work? They are absorbed through your skin through pores (tiny holes in your skin).

Or, why do you think one should not touch infected blood or other body fluids? Same answer.

Writing on your hand occasionally is not a problem, but as a high school teacher, I can tell you the problem is much worse. I have students entering my class after lunch with "sleeves" in permanent marker because it lasts longer. And again, the longer it stays on the skin, the more likely it will be absorbed. Will they contract liver disease? Most likely not, but in the end writing on yourself is more of an annoyance to parents and adults than anything else.

It also baffles me how under-educated individuals are-- especially when they are so condescending but not entirely correct.


I had a bit of a cut, and I drew on it in Sharpie. I'm feeling a bit nauseated (8-10 hours later). Am I just paranoid, or is the Sharpie causing this?


LOL @ the liver comment. Clearly some people need to brush up on your physiology. Only things we ingest will go through the liver - ingest meaning consumption.

Our skin is the first barrier to bacteria, as such, ink will not harm you. The most it could do is irritate your skin, but this is for people who already had sensitive skin in the first place.

Picture this. If ink is absorbed through your skin, then wouldn't water be automatically absorbed too? So why is it that when you wash your hands, you don't absorb water?

Your body is constantly generating new skin cells each day and dead skin cells are constantly flaking off. That's why ink fades with time. It doesn't get absorbed or some nonsense like that, unless you have a cut. (If you have a cut, you should cover it anyway, because that's how bacteria gets in.)

People are so under-educated in science that it baffles me. Especially when it comes to the human body. I've been writing reminders on my hands for years, and I've never experienced any skin irritation or infection or had any liver problems.


"it's just like packets of nuts have to say "will contain nuts" on the packet."

Actually, I think they put "May contain nuts," which bothers me to some extent.


You cannot die from ink poisoning. this whole harmful to your skin nonsense is a old wives tale.

the only reason the pen companies will say this is just in case of a freak accident. it's just like packets of nuts have to say "will contain nuts" on the packet.

I say if you want to draw on your skin go for it. i do all the time and know for a fact that it is very rare for any company to put toxins in their pens. so don't worry and color yourself in black.


I've done literally full sleeve "tattoos" on people in Sharpies which are labeled "Non-toxic." They're still alive and never had any complications. People always tell me that it will cause ink poisoning, but is there any proof that Sharpies do that? Any at all?


If it doesn't belong on your skin then don't put it on there. Ink has chemicals that could get in to the bloodstream. It might take quite a lot to cause a reaction but we don't know. Everything we ingest goes through the liver. Writing on you skin in combination with other things you may invest in your lifetime could cause serious complications. Why risk it?


rubbing alcohol gets rid of permanent marker marks quickly.


I draw on my skin with sharpies a lot. my parents tell me that i can get skin poisoning from doing this. i have been doing this for the past few years and have never - i repeat - never had any allergic reaction or reaction at all towards writing on my skin with permanent markers.

so, am i right in this case? Or are my parents?


A little home remedy I know to remove permanent ink is to spray hair spray on it. I've forgotten the scientific reason now but essentially it breaks down the ink and you can just wipe it away afterwards!


Can you die from writing on your skin? Is it harmful to your skin?

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