Tattoos & Health Risks: Get the Facts

Tattoos have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years; but it’s only fairly recently that they have gained mainstream acceptance. The increased popularity of tattoos also means increased availability. Where tattoo parlors used to only be found in sketchy, urban areas, you can now find them in malls, and trendy suburban neighborhoods.

Although tattoos are now more accepted, there are still concerns. For one thing, tattoos are permanent body art. This means that the flaming eagle inked into your arm, which seemed like such a great idea at the time, will be stuck with you long after its charm has worn off. You may later decide to to remove your tattoo if you don't choose the right design, artist or body location for the art. The other concern about getting a tattoo is the associated health risks.

Health Risks of Tattoos

Tattoos inject ink directly into your skin--a process that causes minute tears in the skin that can lead to health risks, including:

  • Any time you break the skin you have the risk of developing an infection

  • There is also a risk of heavy bleeding, especially if the tattoo covers a larger area

  • Some people could have an allergic reaction to the ink, causing itching, swelling, and even respiratory distress if the allergy is severe enough

  • Because tattoos require needles, there is also a risk of catching diseases usually associated with needle sticks, such as hepatitis and HIV

However, just because these risks exist, it doesn’t mean tattoos are inherently bad. In fact, many of the risks associated with tattoos are no different than the risks of having routine surgery. There are ways of greatly reducing your risks while getting a tattoo:

Research the Regulations for Tattoo Parlors

A lot of states regulate tattoo parlors, and tattoo artists, requiring them to meet certain standards regarding cleanliness, sterilization, and training. However, not all states are regulated. Before you decide to get a tattoo, check the regulations for your state. If your state is unregulated, you might consider going to a regulated state to get a tattoo. If there is no regulated state nearby you will have to do some research to find a good tattoo parlor in a regulated area.

Research the Tattoo Parlor

Even if the state isn’t regulated, a good tattoo parlor should sterilize their equipment and keep a record of their sterilizations. They should also transfer pour the ink they are using into clean, single-use containers, and throw away the excess when they have finished. They should also have proper storage and disposal for used needles; if they have to swap needles they should use brand-new, sterile needles from unopened packages.

Before you get your tattoo, you should ask to see a facility’s sterilization logs and ask if you can observe a tattoo session.

Practice Good Tattoo Aftercare

Because the tattoo equipment and ink should all be sterile at the tattoo parlor, the risk of developing a bacterial infection often comes from poor after care at home. You can help avoid developing an infection after you get your tattoo by taking these measures:

  • Keep the tattoo covered with a clean bandage for at least three days

  • Wash the area with warm, soapy water

  • Apply an antibacterial ointment to the tattoo

  • Avoid picking at any scabs that form

  • Avoid letting other people touch the tattoo for at least three days

  • Keep the tattoo out of direct sunlight, which can fade the ink and irritate the skin

  • Once the scabs have naturally fallen off, apply sunscreen to the tattoo to prevent fading

If your tattoo does become infected, consult your physician or a dermatologist. Avoid applying alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, unless directed by your physician, as these solutions can cause the ink to fade.

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