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 18-29 years old, more than a third are inked. Tattoos were once a guy thing, but now, up to 65% of those with tats are women. Thinking of a tattoo for yourself? Find out about different types of tattoos, the health risks involved, and your options if you change your mind.

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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 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 the night before or while getting a tattoo. Don't even take aspirin. These can thin your blood and could cause you to bleed more.
  • 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 their hands and puts on sterile gloves. In the U.S., tattoo parlor employees are 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 (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 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 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

Think about it before you get a tattoo. You can get them removed, but it’s easier to get one than to have it taken off. And don’t expect your skin to look the way it did before you got inked. You’ll have the best results if your tattoo was done only with black ink.

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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 tattooed 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 skin reactions. It's best to see a doctor, not a tattoo artist, for 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

Your tattoo may not come 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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Types: Temporary Tattoos

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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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 homemade 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

Some 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

As well as lipstick and lip liner, tattoos can serve as "permanent" eyeliner, blush, eyebrow makeup, 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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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 02/05/2020 Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on February 05, 2020

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

(1) Ron Chapple / Ron Chapple Stock

(2) Richard Cummins / Terra

(3) Ron Chapple / Ron Chapple Stock

(4) Scott Camazine/ Phototakeusa

(5-10)  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.

(11)  The New England Journal of Medicine ©2008

(12)  Mario Tama / Reportage

(13)  Tai Power Seeff / The Image Bank

(14)  Digital Vision /Photolibrary

(15)   inakiantonana / Istock

(16)  Alisha Wilkes / tudiabetes.com

REFERENCES:

American Academy of Dermatology.

Archives of Dermatology, "Motivation for Contemporary Tattoo Removal."

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.

Pew Research Center: "Tattoo Taboo."

Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals.

TattooInfo.net.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: "Obligations of establishments that provide tattoos and body piercing under OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard."

Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on February 05, 2020

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.