How Safe is That Tattoo?

The Department of Internal Medicine at New York University (NYU) has a great blog called Clinical Correlations.  The blog is produced by and for physicians so it can be a little technical for the general reader, but it often covers topics that are of interest to everyone. 

A recent post about tatto safety was really good, and very relevant to all you ink-stained Buckeyes out there.  If you’re interested in the details, you can check out the full post here, but here are the highlights:

  • The most common health risk associated with tattooing is localized skin infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus (including MRSA) or Pseudomonas aeruginosa.  A thorough washing of the tattoo site with soap and water is usually effective in preventing localized skin infection.
  • Tattooing can also cause systemic infections such as staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome, pseudomonal abscesses, and infective endocarditis.  If you’ve ever been told that you need to take antibiotics before going to the dentist, you should talk to your health care provider before getting a tattoo.
  • Tattooing has caused tetanus, tuberculosis, hepatitis B and hepatitis C so if you are planning on getting a tattoo, it would be a good idea to make sure your tetanus and hepatitis B vaccines are up to date.
  • Tattoo inks don’t need FDA approval and can contain a wide variety of ingredients that can cause skin reactions.  The most common elements (aluminum, oxygen, titanium, and carbon) have been found to be safe, but mercury, chromium, cadmium, and cobalt are commonly used and have all been associated with delayed hypersensitivity reactions.

These risks are fairly small, but they can be minimized even further by choosing a professional studio to do your tattoo.  You should make sure that the artist changes needles and inkwells, disinfects all equipment, washes her hands and changes gloves between each client.  She should also shave and cleanse the body site with an antimicrobial wash before administering the tattoo and provide appropriate instructions on how to take care of your skin and what problems to look out for. 

If you ever have any concerns about your tattoo, you can make an appointment to see us.

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University