Tattoo On Woman's Arm
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The Truth about Tattoos

You don't have to look far in a crowd to see a tattoo today. Among people 18 to 30 years old, one person in four  is inked. In the next few years, 40% of this age group likely will be. Once a guy thing, now  up to 65% of those with tats are women. Thinking of a tattoo for yourself? Find out why people get  them, the health risks involved, and your options if you change your mind.

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Man With Tattoo's and Dog
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Types: Amateur Tattoos

Anybody can jab ink, charcoal, or ashes under the skin with a pin. These home-made tats often aren’t as arty as those done by pros. Because such tattoos are often done under unclean conditions, they also have a much higher risk of infection.

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Buddhist Monk in Thailand
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Types: Cultural Tattoos

Different cultures have tattoo traditions. These tats may look a certain way or have a special purpose. They might be done for rituals or as a mark of beauty, for example.

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Tattoo Artist at Work
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Types: Professional Tattoos

These tattoos are applied by registered artists using a tattoo machine. That's the term many artists prefer to "tattoo gun."

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Woman Receiving Cosmetic Lip Tattoo
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Types: Cosmetic Tattoos

Tattoos aren't always designs or messages. Sometimes they're used as "permanent" make-up. People have tattooed eye and lip liner, lipstick, blush, eyebrows, or even fake hair. Because tattoos fade over time, the inking has to be repeated to keep colors fresh.

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Diabetic Medical Alert Tattoo
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Types: Medical Tattoos

Some people get inked for  medical reasons. Someone with a chronic disease like diabetes may use a tattoo to alert health care workers in case of an emergency. If you’re getting radiation therapy more than once, the doctors may use a tattoo to mark the site. After surgery to rebuild a breast, a tattoo may be used for the nipple.

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Chair in Tattoo Salon
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Why Get a Tattoo?

Most people get a tattoo for one of two reasons. They want to express themselves and show they're unique. Or they want to show they belong to a group. Take your time to settle on a design. Also think about where you want it, and who will see it.

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Exterior of Pair O Dice Tattoo Parlor
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Safe Tattooing: Choosing a Studio

Getting a permanent tattoo requires breaking the skin and having contact with blood and body fluids. Above all, make sure the studio is as clean as a doctor's office. (Hint: Check the bathroom.) Make sure the artist's business license  is up to date. Tattooing should be done in a separate area. It should have a clean, hard surface and no random items that add unwanted germs to the work area.

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Modern Tattoo Gun with Black Ink
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Safe Tattooing Tips

  • Don't drink alcohol or take drugs (especially aspirin) the night before or while getting a tattoo.
  • Don't get a tattoo if you're sick.
  • Make sure all needles come from sterile, one-use packages.
  • See that the studio has machines to kill the germs on the instruments after each use.
  • Make sure the artist washes his or her hands and puts on sterile gloves. Many have to be trained in how to stop illnesses spread by blood.
  • Be sure the work area is clean.
  • Get details of everything used in your tattoo, including color, sometimes called pigment, maker's name, and lot number.
  • Closely follow all advice on healing. You may be told to use a germ-fighting ointment, for example.

 

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MRSA Infected Arm Tattoo
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Tattoo Risks: Infection

Any type of tattoo involves health risks. The worst is a very dangerous infection, like HIV or hepatitis C, from unclean needles. You could also get MRSA or impetigo, which are staph infections, or cellulitis, a deep skin infection. Another danger is impure ink that has mold or bacteria. This can lead to problems with the eyes, lungs, and other organs

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Allergic hypersensetivity reaction to red tattoo
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Tattoo Risks: Allergic Reaction

Some people are allergic to tattoo inks. This happens most with reds. The woman in this picture developed an allergic reaction to the red used in her cosmetic lipstick tattoo. A bad reaction to dyes or metals used can injure tissue or cause swelling or a rash.

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Tattoo on forearm before and after therapy.
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Tattoo Removal

Tired of your tat? You can have it removed. Results can be good, and look best if the tattoo was done only in black. Don't expect skin to look the same as before you got inked.

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Dermabrasion and Laser Tattoo Removal
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Tattoo Removal Techniques

There are three basic ways to lose a look. The tattoed skin can be cut away, rubbed away (dermabrasion), or removed with lasers. Most doctors prefer to use lasers. That's how the tattoo shown here was removed.  The scar below it was left from dermabrasion removal. Some color inks are harder to remove than others and repeated visits are required. Your tattoo may never be 100% gone. DON’T use a do-it-yourself tattoo removal product. These products contain acids and can cause harmful skin reactions. It's best to see a doctor, not a tattoo artist, for tattoo removal.

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Tissue Whitening After Laser Tattoo Treatment
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Tattoo Removal: What To Expect

Different lasers are used on different tattoo colors to break down the pigment into small bits that go away. Right after treatment, the skin under the tattoo may whiten. More normal skin color usually appears over time.

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Exuberant blister reaction in red tattoo pigment
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Tattoo Removal Risks: Allergic Reactions

As lasers break down tattoo pigments, you could have an allergic reaction. In the heart tattoo shown here, several different laser treatments caused blisters. These blisters got better with routine skin care.

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Scar after treatment with Q-switched ruby laser
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Tattoo Removal Risks: Scarring

Not every tattoo comes off perfectly. This picture shows how a laser tattoo removal left a scar.

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Tense Bullae of Infected Henna Tattoo
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Even Temporary Tattoos Have Risks

You can avoid a forever tattoo by using short-term, henna-based ink painted on the skin. Be careful, though. As this picture shows, even these tattoos can cause allergic reactions. Red-brown vegetable henna is approved by the FDA only for hair color, not for skin designs.

Stay away from "black henna" or "blue henna" tattoos. The color may come from coal tar, which often causes severe allergic reactions.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 05/24/2016 Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on May 24, 2016

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

(1)    Ron Chapple / Ron Chapple Stock
(2)    Mario Tama / Reportage
(3)    Tai Power Seeff / The Image Bank
(4)    Digital Vision /Photolibrary
(5)    inakiantonana / Istock
(6)    Alisha Wilkes / tudiabetes.com
(7)    Steve Pomberg/ WebMD
(8)    Creative Concept / Index Stock Imagery
(9)    Richard Cummins / Terra
(10)  Ron Chapple / Ron Chapple Stock
(11)  Scott Camazine/ Phototakeusa
(12-17)  "Color Atlas of Cosmetic Dermatology"; Marc R. Avram, Sandy Tsao, Zeina Tannous, Mathew M. Avram; Copyright 2007 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
(18)  The New England Journal of Medicine ©2008

REFERENCES:

American Academy of Dermatology.
Armstrong, M.L. Archives of Dermatology, July 2008.
FDA.
Jonette Keri, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
News release, American Academy of Dermatology.
Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals.
TattooInfo.net.

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on May 24, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.