Skin infections and other risks from tattoos: 5 safety tips

The arm of a Washington State woman showing an infection caused by infected ink from a tattoo. AP Photo/University of Washington, Dr. Andrea Kalus
The arm of a Washington State woman showing an infection caused by infected ink from a tattoo. AP Photo/University of Washington, Dr. Andrea Kalus

More than one in five Americans sports at least one tattoo, but a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights a surprising new risk—from the ink itself.

There have been 22 recent cases of tattoo-associated skin infections caused by a type of bacteria commonly found in tap water and more than 30 suspected additional cases. The infections occurred in four states—New York, Washington, Iowa, and Colorado—all associated with inks that were either diluted by the ink manufacturer or by the tatoo artist before applying.

“Consumers should be aware of the health risks associated with getting an intradermal tattoo,” advised the CDC in a statement. These include infections from contaminated needles, allergies to various pigments, and heightened sensitivity to sunlight in the tattooed area, all of which can cause skin rashes, irritation, and redness. Check out the FDA’s website for a full listing of risks.

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Anyone considering a tattoo should take certain precautions, recommended Ruth Jones, public health nurse educator for the Quincy Health Department; she’s responsible for licensing and inspecting all the body art facilities in that city.

1. Use tattoo parlors registered by a local board of health. “Every establishment must be licensed by a city or town, usually the health department, since there’s not a state license,” said Jones. You should see a copy of the facility license and practitioner’s license hanging on the wall.

2. Watch to make sure the tattoo artist follows appropriate hygienic practices. The practitioner should be wearing gloves and should sterilize all equipment in an autoclave; in Quincy, parts of the machine that can’t be sterilized need to be covered in disposable plastic sleeves. “Watch the set up,” Jones advised. “Make sure the artist opens sterile packets to remove the needles.” The artist also shouldn’t dip into a large bottle of ink with his equipment but instead should pour the ink into small disposable caps to avoid cross contamination.

3. Avoid establishments that look dirty. While tattoo parlors are supposed to follow the rules and get inspected regularly, even licensed establishments can slip up from time to time. “Look at the facility,” said Jones. “Make sure the counters are clean” and not cluttered with dirty needles and used paper towels.

4. Understand that tattoos aren’t risk-free. Problems in licensed facilities are rare, said Jones, but there’s no way to protect completely against infections from the ink or a needle piercing the skin. “I’ve been inspecting facilities for 11 years, and we really haven’t seen many infections, so I’d say problems are rare,” said Jones. The biggest risks, she added, come with using unlicensed facilities that operate illegally and often lure consumers with cheaper prices.

5. Seek medical advice if you have any skin problems related to the tattoo. Sometimes antibiotics or other treatments are warranted. You should also notify the tattoo parlor and the FDA’s MedWatch program if you experience an adverse reaction.