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Skin Infections Linked to Tattoo Ink

Dozens of Cases Traced to Unsterile Pre-Mixed Inks

From the WebMD Archives


Few Safeguards Against Unsafe Ink

Katz says people should be aware that the FDA has never approved a color or pigment for injection into the skin. Many colors are approved for other uses, such as automobile paint or printer’s ink.

“In this case, there have been no inks, as of now, that have been approved for use in tattoos,” Katz says.

Inks don’t have to be tested for safety or purity before they’re sold to consumers.

Katz says it’s difficult to know how often ink-related infections occur because reporting of problems is voluntary. It seems to be an uncommon phenomenon.

But here’s why health officials are worried: Tattoos are more popular now than they ever have been. According to a Harris Interactive poll, 1 in 5 adults now has a tattoo, up from 1 in 7 just four years ago.

It’s also not the first time the safety of tattoo ink has come under scrutiny. Public health authorities in Seattle and Rochester, Minn., have also recently reported cases of stubborn mycobacterial skin infections caused by contaminated inks.

Last year, researchers in Denmark tested 58 bottles of tattoo ink purchased over the Internet from suppliers in the U.S. and U.K. They found 10% of the unopened inks were contaminated with bacteria.

Advice for Inking Safely

Katz says people should look at a variety of things when they get a tattoo:

  • Is the tattoo parlor meeting state requirements for cleanliness and needle care?
  • Does the tattoo artist know about the nature of their inks? Do they know how they are prepared? If the ink was diluted, was it done with sterile water?

In addition, Katz advises the newly inked to carefully follow any instructions for aftercare. Some redness and irritation is normal for the first few days. Any rash that pops up a week or two after you get a tattoo should be checked by a doctor.

She advises people who get rashes to report the problem to the tattoo artist so they can take the ink out of circulation. The person should also notify the local department of public health and the FDA.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 22, 2012



Kennedy, B. The New England Journal of Medicine, Aug. 22, 2012.

LeBlanc, P. The New England Journal of Medicine. Aug. 22, 2012.

Bedard, B. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Aug. 22, 2012.

Byron S. Kennedy, MD, PhD, MPH, deputy director, Monroe County Department of Public Health, Rochester, N.Y.

Linda Katz, MD, MPH, director, Office of Cosmetics and Colors, FDA, Silver Spring, Md.

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