Tattoo Side Effects

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on September 10, 2020

What Are the Side Effects of Tattoos?

Getting a tattoo isn’t a pain-free process. But how do you know if the pain you’re feeling after getting inked is normal? Bad reactions can happen right after you get a tattoo and even years later. That's why you need to pay attention to your skin and know how to spot the signs of allergic reactions, infections, and other problems.

Allergic reactions. One of the most common problems is an allergic reaction to tattoo pigment. Allergic reactions to red tattoo pigments are the most common.

If you're having an allergic reaction to your tattoo, you might get a rash that's usually red, bumpy, or itchy. These symptoms can crop up in the days after you first get your tattoo or can appear months or years later. You can most likely treat the area with a topical steroid ointment.

Another cause for itching and swelling is an autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis. It can show up decades after you get your tattoo. And although it’s not directly caused by the ink, when it shows up in the skin, it tends to show up on the tattoo. A cream you apply to your skin should help ease your symptoms. But if your case is severe, you might need an immunosuppressant medication from your doctor.

If you have eczema or psoriasis, there’s a chance your new tattoo can cause flare-ups of your condition, including bumps, itching, and rash.

Infections. Infections aren’t as common as allergic reactions, but they can happen. Your tattoo can get infected for a variety of reasons, including contaminated tools. That's why it’s important to find an artist and a facility you trust.

Dirty tools can pass bacterial infections like staph and impetigo from person to person.

Contaminated ink can cause atypical mycobacterial infections. Symptoms like lesions and red bumps show up on your skin, but only in the areas where the ink was injected. You may think you're having an allergic reaction. You may need to get a skin biopsy done to get a proper diagnosis.

If you have this kind of infection, you might need to take antibiotics for several months to get rid of it.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Tenderness and pain
  • Swelling
  • Pus or any other substance draining from the tattoo
  • Fever

Blood-borne illness. In rare cases, dirty tattoo equipment can pass on serious blood-borne diseases like HIV, hepatitis, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Before you get a tattoo, make sure you have current hepatitis and tetanus vaccines.

Keloid scarring. A keloid (raised scar) can form anywhere you have trauma to your skin, like a tattoo. If you're prone to keloids, ask your tattoo artist to try a small test spot before you get a tattoo. This may give you an idea of how your skin will react. But keep in mind that it can take months for a keloid to form.

If your skin starts to thicken after you get a tattoo, ask your dermatologist about a pressure garment. These may help stop a keloid from forming.

MRI complications. It's rare, but tattoos can sometimes cause swelling or burning later on when your doctor gives you an MRI scan. Or they might keep your doctor from getting a good image with an MRI. Before you get an MRI, tell your doctor you have a tattoo.

Conceals skin cancer. If you have dark tattoos over large areas of your body, it could keep you from noticing symptoms of skin cancer. Discolored spots on your skin are among the earliest signs. Never get a tattoo over a mole, birthmark, or other discolored area on your skin.

Tattoo Ink Safety

Many people get tattoos with no problems. Still, there's no way to be 100% sure that the ink used in your tattoo is safe and free of contaminants that could cause infection. You also can't know ahead of time if you'll be allergic to tattoo ink.

We need more research, but a few studies have linked ingredients in tattoo ink to cancer. Researchers are most concerned about black ink. It may contain an ingredient called benzo(a)pyrene, which is thought to be capable of causing cancer.

Until we have more information about the long-term safety of tattoo ink, the best way to stay safe is to choose a reputable tattoo parlor, and ask your tattoo artist about their safety practices.

How to Prevent Problems

Luckily, there are many ways you can cut your chances of having a bad reaction to your tattoo:

  • Do your research and choose a professional tattoo parlor. Make sure your artist has the correct licensing for your state.
  • Ask to see the equipment before you get your tattoo, and make sure everything is in sterile packaging.
  • Contact your tattoo artist if you notice something suspicious about your tattoo after you get inked. But if the problem lasts more than a week, make an appointment with a dermatologist.
  • Talk to your dermatologist before you get a tattoo if you have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis.
  • Choose an area of skin that’s free of moles. Covering them up with ink will make it harder to diagnose any changes or problems that may come up later.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and water before touching your new tattoo or the bandage the artist will use to cover it. Leave that bandage in place for 24 hours.
  • Avoid scratching or picking at your tattoo while it heals, since this can introduce bacteria into the skin.


Show Sources


American Academy of Dermatology: “Caring for tattooed skin,” “Dermatologist warns consumers about complications linked to newer tattoo inks,” "Keloids: How to Prevent These Raised Scars."

DermNet New Zealand: “Tattoo-associated skin reactions.”

FDA: “Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?” "Tattoos & Permanent Makeup: Fact Sheet."

The New England Journal of Medicine: “Tattoo Ink -- Related Infections -- Awareness, Diagnosis, Reporting, and Prevention.”

HealthGuidance: “Tattoo Ink Poisoning Symptoms.”

San Mateo County Health System: “Tattoo Aftercare.”

Mayo Clinic: “Tattoos and Piercings,” "Tattoos: Understand risks and precautions."

Free Tattoo Designs: “Tattoo Care.”

Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Global Open: “Squamous-cell Carcinoma Arises in Red Parts of Multicolored Tattoo within Months.”

Teen Health: "Tattoos."

Penn Medicine: "Think Before You Ink: Tattoo Health Risks."

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