Tattoos may be more common than ever, but don’t take tattooing lightly. Know the risks and understand basic safety precautions and aftercare steps.
You could be the proud owner of a new tattoo in a matter of hours — but don’t let the ease of getting tattoos stop you from making a thoughtful decision about permanent body art. If you first take steps to protect yourself from possible risks, what seems like a cool idea now is less likely to turn into a source of regret later.
How tattoos are done
A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on your skin with pigments inserted through pricks into the skin’s top layer. Typically, the tattoo artist uses a hand-held machine that acts much like a sewing machine, with one or more needles piercing the skin repeatedly. With every puncture, the needles insert tiny ink droplets. The process — which is done without anesthetics and may last up to several hours for a large tattoo — causes a small amount of bleeding and slight to potentially significant pain.
Know the risks
Tattoos breach the skin, which means that skin infections and other complications are possible. Specific risks include:
- Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes — especially red dye — can cause allergic skin reactions, resulting in an itchy rash at the tattoo site. This may occur even years after you get the tattoo.
- Skin infections. Tattoos can lead to local bacterial infections, characterized by redness, swelling, pain and a pus-like drainage.
- Other skin problems. Sometimes bumps called granulomas form around tattoo ink — especially red ink. Tattooing can also lead to raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue (keloids).
- Bloodborne diseases. If the equipment used to create your tattoo is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract various bloodborne diseases, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus and HIV — the virus that causes AIDS.
- MRI complications. Rarely, tattoos or permanent makeup may cause swelling or burning in the affected areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams. In some cases — such as when a person with permanent eyeliner has an MRI of the eye — tattoo pigments may interfere with the quality of the image.
Medication or other treatment may be needed if you develop an allergic reaction, infection or other skin problem. In some cases, the tattoo may need to be removed. Keep in mind that tattoo inks are classified as cosmetics, so they aren’t regulated or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).