Are Tattoos and Piercings Dangerous?

How can I protect myself while getting body art?

Are you thinking about getting a tattoo or body Piercing? Tattooing and Body Piercing have become very popular since the early ’90’s. Once the domain of sailors and tough guys, body art has become accepted within mainstream circles, from high school students to urban professionals.

Is body art safe?

Tattooing and body piercing are perfectly safe when done by professionals who are careful to protect their customers from infections. It’s tempting to save money and let a relative or a friend at a party give you a tattoo or piercing. However, these amateurs (“scratchers”) rarely take full precautions to protect you from such infections as Hepatitis C (severe liver disease) and possibly even HIV (the virus known to cause AIDS). Because needles are used in body art, there is a risk of getting these blood diseases.

While the risk of getting HIV is small, Hepatitis B and C are easily transmitted by unsafe body art. The information below will help you to make smart choices when getting body art.

What are the risks involved with body art?

Blood diseases are a real possibility. The Hepatitis Virus can survive for a long time in open air. HIV is not as strong, but it is possible to be infected through unsafe body art practices. Body artists must always sterilize (autoclave) their needles or never re-use them. To avoid bacterial infections, they must keep their shop clean, all surfaces and equipment disinfected and sterilized.

What risks might an amateur artist take?

Amateur (unsafe) body artists may take some of the following risks:

  • Re-use needles–this is like sharing IV drug syringes with strangers. Needles should be used only once, then disposed. Ask to watch your body artist open your brand new, packaged, sterilized needle.
  • Re-use ink–a virus can survive for some time in ink. Fresh ink should be used for your tattoo. Ask to see your ink poured into new, disposable “caps”.
  • Used jewelry–it is recommended that brand new, sterile, surgical steel jewelry be used for your piercing.
  • Piercing gun–these should be used only for the ear. Needles should not be used for all other piercings.
  • Dirty shop–if the shop surfaces are not disinfected, there is a possibility of acquiring a variety of bacterial infections.

Are you ready for body art?

Now that you know the risks of unsafe body art, go through the following checklist before visiting a body artist:

  • Are you sure that you want body art? – Remember that tattoos are permanent. Think 20 years down the road.
  • What will the body art look like and where will it go on your body? – It should say something about YOU (not someone else).
  • Tattooing doesn’t tickle! Make sure you can handle the discomfort until your tattoo is finished (often 45 minutes or longer).
  • Make sure you know of any severe skin allergies you may have, and be sure your skin is clear of cuts or rashes.
  • Choose your body artist carefully! – Read “Choosing An Artist” below.

How do you choose a body artist?

When you are ready to pick your body artist, remember the following:

  • Try to get a referral from a trusted friend.
  • If your friends don’t know of anyone, look in the yellow pages under “Tattooing”. You can usually find body piercing in this section as well. This is where you can make your own list of artists to visit.
  • Visit several shops before you make a final decision. Remember to read the section entitled “Shop Inspection” (below) so you know what to look for.
  • Your first concern should be to see what precautions the artist takes to protect his/her customers from infection. Your second concern should be to see the creative talents of the artist. With attention to detail, you could have spectacular results.
  • Talk to the artist. Tattooing and body piercing is very personal work, so you should feel comfortable with him/her.

What should you look for when visiting a body art shop?

Now that you’ve narrowed down your choices, its time to visit some shops. Once you have entered the area where body art is applied, you should feel as though you are in a well-lit, clean clinic. Here are some specific things you should see during your “shop inspection”:

  1. Sterilizing machine (called an autoclave). Soaking equipment in chemicals isn’t good enough.
  2. Packaged, sterilized needles and tubes.
  3. Disposable razors for shaving tattoo area.
  4. Puncture-resistant “sharp” container.
  5. Fresh ink dispensers and disposable “ink caps”.
  6. Appropriate hand washing and clean up sinks.
  7. Evidence of health board approval and a business license.
  8. Clean rooms (no animals, drugs, alcohol).
  9. Artist’s portfolio (these are pictures of the work they have done on others). All good artists will have a portfolio.
  10. Disposable rubber gloves for the artist.
  11. Labeled disinfecting spray bottles for sanitizing surfaces.

If the artist does not want to show you these things or answer your questions, leave and find an artist who will! If you feel comfortable with the shop and the artist, express yourself in body art!

How do I care for my body art?

It’s extremely important that you take good care of your tattoo or piercing once you leave the shop. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Keep the tattoo/piercing area clean (don’t use peroxide or alcohol).
  • Avoid swimming pools and hot tubs for at least one week.
  • Do not pick any scabs which form.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun until healed (about a month)
  • In case of an infection or allergic reaction to the ink or jewelry, visit your doctor, return to the artist, and if necessary, report to your local health authority.

A good body artist will provide you with a printed list of things you must do to prevent infections. Make sure you ask for that list and that they explain it to you before you leave!