Tattoos are extremely common. Many people have them, and many people have never experienced any issues from them.
But is tattooing completely safe?
For the vast majority of people who get tattoos, tattooing is a safe procedure. With that said, there are still some things you should be aware of before bringing needle to skin.
“Tattooing is by no means a no-risk activity,” says Dr. Hayley Goldbach, a resident physician in dermatology at UCLA. “Any time you break the skin, you are disrupting the natural barrier that your skin provides.”
So what are the issues people can face when getting a tattoo?
“The biggest health risk is infection,” says Goldbach. “This can range from a localized mild skin infection to a more serious one.”
For example, there’s a small but possible risk of transmission of endocarditis, which is an infection of the lining of the heart that’s potentially fatal. In the case of tattoos done in a non-sterile location, there’s also the possibility of the transmission of infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
It’s for this reason that Goldbach advises patients to only use reputable, sterile tattooing facilities with experienced professionals. She also stresses that it’s important to do research; different states have different laws governing sanitation for tattoo parlors and certification and training for tattoo artists.
While uncommon, the materials used in tattoos can also be allergenic to certain people. Goldbach notes that studies have found that the levels of cobalt, chromium, and nickel in some tattoo ink can induce an allergic reaction. Ink materials and metals used in tattoos will vary from place to place.
Certain inks used in tattooing aren’t tightly regulated by the FDA or approved for skin contact, which Goldbach calls concerning. “It makes it very hard to study inks for safety.” She adds that the composition of tattoo ink has changed over time, demonstrating that “new and potentially dangerous agents could be introduced into tattoo ink at any time.”
And then there’s the issue of tattoos masking irregularities on our skin. “Tattoos can make it difficult to monitor patients for skin cancer if the tattoos are on or near a mole that we’re watching,” says Goldbach.
If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo, it’s important to do some research and consider the concerns. It’s an extremely common practice that goes smoothly in the majority of cases, but it also can carry risks.