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Tattoos: Are They Safe?

What you need to know about the health risks of tattoos, finding a safe tattoo parlor, and tattoo removal.

From the WebMD Archives

Kate Beschen spent years contemplating a tattoo. So when the 37-year-old Philadelphia-based doula finally went for her ink last year, she thought she had covered all the bases. "I had my son and daughter drawn as superheroes on my upper arm," Beschen says. "I decided this was an image I'd be proud to have for the rest of my life."

But there was one angle Beschen didn't anticipate: her daughter's reaction. "My 15-year-old is making comments about wanting a tattoo," she says. "Now I'm not so sure how I feel about the process -- I want her to be safe, and I don't want her to regret it."

Tattoos: No Safety Regulations

Are tattoos safe? The FDA regulates the inks in tattoos, but the actual practice of tattooing is regulated by local jurisdictions, such as cities and counties. That means there is no standardized certification for those doing the tattooing or an overall governing body supervising the health and safety of tattoo parlors.

"When you are injecting a substance into the skin, you risk infection," says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University. "Although small, the risks include hepatitis, staph, or warts."

Other Tattoo Risks

There are other possible health risks: A gun equipped with needles punctures the top layer of the skin to deposit ink in the dermis, the deep layer of the skin. Unsterilized tools such as the needles or gun, and ink that has been contaminated, can lead to infection. As the surface skin heals, the pigment remains trapped below.

Pain is always a factor. Depending on the part of the body you're tattooing, the experience can feel like a pin scratch or like being carved by nails. And because the skin is punctured, bleeding is involved, which can put you at risk for blood-borne illnesses such as hepatitis B.

The ingredients in the ink also can pose a problem, in the form of allergic reaction, Tanzi warns. "An allergy to the ink is uncommon, but can lead to inflammation and scarring," she says. Ask if the inks contain nickel or mercury -- the most likely allergens -- so you can avoid these. The ingredients in tattoo ink can vary depending on the color, but they often contain metals and other organic compounds in a liquid base like purified water.

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