What to Know About the Dangers of "Eye Tattoos"

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on August 24, 2022
5 min read

Eyeball tattoos are a type of cosmetic body modification that has been increasingly popular in the last few years. They are considered one of the most extreme tattoos a person can get and are widely known for their dangers. For example, they can lead to infection and blindness

Here's what you need to know.

Eyeball tattoos, also known as sclera tattoos, are one of the latest trends when it comes to extreme cosmetic body modifications. The aim of this procedure is to change the appearance of the white part of the eye, which is called the sclera. While some designs are possible, most people opt for entirely changing the color of their eyeballs.

Eye tattooing shouldn’t be confused with corneal tattooing, though, with the latter being a procedure that focuses on improving the cosmetics of the cornea, and eye tattoo meaning scleral tattooing. The cornea is a thin transparent layer that covers the frontal part of the eye. While still dangerous, corneal tattooing can sometimes be performed by doctors and may be justified due to scars or specific conditions.

Are eye tattoos safe? Although you can find hundreds of success stories online, eye tattoos are highly dangerous, unregulated, and irreversible procedures. The main problem with eye tattooing is that they are not a tattoo in the traditional sense of the world. Rather, ink is inserted near the surface of the eye, which allows it to expand uncontrollably. On top of that, due to it being a relatively rare procedure, the long-term consequences of eye tattoos are unknown.

Furthermore, there aren't any eye inks approved by government agencies — instead, the ones that are used in eye tattooing can be similar to printing and car dye. The tattoo artists themselves can be a similarly unknown quantity, as there isn’t a standardized certification for performing eyeball tattoos. 

Are eye tattoos legal? After a series of cases of eyeball tattoos gone wrong, laws started to change in the late 2010s. Sclera tattooing is now banned in Oklahoma, Indiana, and Washington, among other places. However, some tattoo artists are still performing these dangerous procedures in states or countries where the practice is unregulated. 

The procedure behind eyeball tattooing is relatively simple — insert a dye into one of the layers that form the white part of the eye and let it expand. However, reality has shown that it’s much more complicated, as the correct area to insert the ink is a very small point even when measured in millimeters. 

When getting an eye tattoo, a person has to rely on an individual who may have no medical qualifications, which increases the risks involved. These tattoo artists are often unaware of the delicate nature of the eye. Furthermore, most of them haven’t studied its anatomy enough to be sure of what they’re doing.

Once a person has decided on the details of their tattoo, the artist will use a small needle to inject the dye into the eye. Ideally, this should go just under the bulbar conjunctiva — an extremely thin transparent layer that covers most of the eye. If done correctly, the needle should then be able to apply the dye directly onto the sclera, which is the white part of the eye.

However, this procedure is not done only once for each eye, as one might imagine. Rather, each eye must be injected multiple times in different locations, further increasing the risk of the tattoo artist inserting dye in the wrong location. If everything was done correctly, the ink should now begin to spread until it has covered the entirety of the sclera.

Due to the sensitive and delicate nature of the eye and the lack of certification of tattoo artists, eye tattooing carries many dangers. These range from infections to complete blindness, making it one of the most dangerous cosmetic procedures out there. 

Here are some of the possible consequences of eye tattoos:

Vision loss. When applied correctly, the ink should be injected right under the conjunctiva. However, due to this area being extremely thin, there’s a high risk of the needle going inside the eye. This can lead not only to severe pain but also to eyesight issues during or after the procedure — potentially even causing blindness.

Infections. Tattoo artists may accidentally use a contaminated needle, putting you at risk of getting a bloodborne disease such as hepatitis. Furthermore, the ink itself can sometimes cause an infection, and there’s no way to make sure it won’t until after it has been injected. Eye infections can lead to severe problems, including vision loss, if left untreated.

Inflammation. The human body may sometimes react badly to an eyeball tattoo, triggering a reaction known as sympathetic ophthalmia. This is an autoimmune response that causes inflammation in both eyes, sometimes resulting in partial or complete vision loss.

Eye loss. Eyeball tattooing can cause a myriad of problems, many of which are unpredictable and may occur at any point during or after the procedure. If a tattooed eye is causing more issues than expected, doctors may have no other choice but to completely remove the affected eye.

These aren’t the only complications that may arise from eye tattoos, though. Other common issues include photophobia (sensitivity to light), bleeding at the injection sites, allergic reactions to the ink, and retinal detachment. Furthermore, a tattooed sclera can hide symptoms of other conditions, leading to a delayed diagnosis in the case of other, unrelated conditions.

It’s understandable that some people may want to change the color of their eyes. However, there are safer alternatives to eyeball tattooing that may even be cheaper and easier to get. The most common one involves colored contacts, also called cosmetic contacts or costume contacts.

These tinted contacts are a much safer alternative to eye tattoos, though they still carry some degree of risk. If you’re considering buying colored contacts, make sure to:

  • Buy them at a certified ophthalmology store instead of at a costume store.
  • Get the correct size to avoid infections and other conditions.
  • Avoid sleeping or swimming while wearing them.
  • Clean them often.
  • Use contact solution.
  • Replace them at or before the recommended time.

As you can see, changing your eyeball color is not as easy as it sounds and can lead to many issues in the short and long run. If you’re still considering changing your sclera’s color, though, make sure to check with a doctor. They’ll be able to point you in the right direction and inform you of the possible dangers of each procedure.