Tattoo Side Effects: Infections, Allergic Reactions, and Other Issues

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 25, 2022
5 min read

Your tattoo can get infected for a variety of reasons. That's why it’s important to find an artist and a facility you trust.

Causes for infection can include:

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

Contaminated ink. The FDA doesn’t regulate tattoo ink. Even if the ink container is marked “sterile,” it could contain bacteria or other contaminants. Ink could get contaminated after it leaves the manufacturer, even when it's in a closed container.

Nonsterile water. To achieve certain colors, tattoo artists sometimes dilute ink by mixing in water. But tap and distilled water can contain microorganisms that lead to infection. To lower your risk, your tattoo artist should only use a newly opened bottle of sterile water.

Ingredients in the ink.The tattoo ink itself may be made from or contain things that could be harmful, such as:

  • Additives made from animal products, like gelatin or glycerin
  • Chemicals like pH stabilizers or coating agents
  • Metal salts
  • Pigments intended for textiles, printer ink, or car paint
  • Ink meant to be used for calligraphy

Unsterile skin. You’re also at risk for infection if the skin that’s being tattooed isn't cleaned properly beforehand.

You can also get an infection while your skin is healing after you get a tattoo.

If your tattoo is infected, you may notice signs in the area where you got the tattoo. Sometimes you'll see them only within certain colors in the tattoo. Symptoms can include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Bumps on or under your skin that may contain pus
  • Hotness in the area
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Fever and chills
  • Itchiness
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes

Most often, tattoo infections are bacterial skin infections like staphylococcus. You pick them up from unsterile conditions or contaminated inks or water. It's uncommon, but you could also get a serious infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

In rare cases, dirty tattoo equipment can pass on serious viral infections like HIV or hepatitis. Before you get a tattoo, make sure you have current hepatitis and tetanus vaccines.

Depending on the what caused your infection and how serious it is, you might need to take one or more antibiotics for up to 6 weeks. Or your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic ointment.

If you have a very serious infection, you might need to get antibiotics through an IV. If antibiotics don’t work, you might need surgery to remove some skin in the affected area.

If your infection isn't serious, you'll likely make a full recovery. Sometimes it can take a few months, though.

If you notice signs of tattoo infection, tell your doctor or dermatologist right away. Prompt treatment can help prevent damage to your tattoo and your health. If they prescribe antibiotics or other medications, follow their instructions closely.

One of the most common side effects of a tattoo is an allergic reaction to tattoo pigment. Allergic reactions to red tattoo pigments happen most often.

If you're having an allergic reaction to your tattoo, you might get a rash that's 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 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.