What you should know before getting a tattoo
Years ago, tattoos were primarily found only on the bodies of sailors, carnival workers and skid row bums.
Times have changed, however, and today you’ll find people from all walks of life sporting skin art of all sizes. In fact, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 40 percent of respondents had someone in their household with a tattoo, up from 21 percent in 1999. Some 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo.
But just how safe are tattoos? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a Consumer Health Information article explaining what everyone should know before and after they get a tattoo.
Permanent tattoos are made by using needles to inject colored ink below the skin’s surface. This has the potential to cause short and long-term risks to the body, according to the FDA. While local and state authorities regulate tattoo parlors, tattoo ink and ink colorings are not FDA approved. Many ink colors are industrial-grade, suitable for printers’ ink or automobile ink. Temporary henna tattoo ink has not been FDA approved, either. It is only approved for use as a hair dye.
The FDA lists the following associated risks to keep in mind when getting a tattoo:
- Infection. Make sure the tattoo parlor you visit is clean and sanitary in its processes. Dirty needles can spread infections or diseases. Some infections will respond to antibiotics, but others may not. All tattoo artists may not adhere to strict hygiene or antiseptic techniques, says Dr. Christopher Hughes, an Advocate Medical Group family medicine physician at Advocate Eureka Hospital in Eureka, Ill. “Even with the best precautions, infection can still occur,” he says. Dr. Hughes warns that unclean needles can result in heart valve infections, hepatitis B and C and even HIV. “All of these conditions can lead to serious health consequences.”
- Allergies. Allergic reactions can vary from person to person. The FDA has received reports of bad reactions to tattoo inks after getting a tattoo. Some report itchy or inflamed skin around their tattoos in the summer due to heat from the sun.“Delayed hypersensitivity reactions can occur weeks to months after a tattoo is finished,” says Dr. Hughes. “These are generally caused by metallic salts within the ink.”
- Scarring. Scar tissue may form on the surrounding skin when getting or removing a tattoo.
- Granulomas. These small knots or bumps may form around ink material because the body is trying to remove something foreign from the skin.
- MRI complications. Some experience swelling or burning in the tattoo when having an MRI done. Be sure to inform the radiologist or technician so appropriate precautions can be taken.
If you think you can change your mind about your tattoo later in life, keep in mind that removal is costly, time consuming and painful.
Tattoo removal is typically done by laser treatment, which delivers short flashes of light at very high intensities to the skin to break down the tattoo ink. It requires repeat visits every several weeks and may never entirely disappear.
“Other techniques for removal include an abrasive process that removes the superficial layer of skin, cryosurgery, thermal cautery, and surgical resection,” says Dr. Hughes. “All of these therapies can leave visible scars. They are generally not covered by insurance.”
The FDA also warns against do-it-yourself tattoo removal products. These acid-based products are not FDA approved and can cause bad skin reactions. Consult a health care provider – not a tattoo parlor – if you want a tattoo removed.
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health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care sites, also including freelance or intern writers.