Regardless of what you think about tattooing and body piercing- it’s clearly popular. Tattooing and body piercing are obviously invasive- which brings up the question: do these (now common) practices pose a health threat? Are they safe? The answer is simple. Like just about everything else in life- it can be safe as long as it’s done right. If done wrong, the more invasive procedures can spread pathogens like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV and AIDS and Staph infections. Of course, the definition of the word “safe” depends on what you perceive to be an acceptable risk.
There are a few things to consider if you’re interested in protecting yourself from infection. Number one- consider whether you want to do it at all. If you decide you do, and you want to minimize risk, it makes sense to discuss the safety procedures with the people working at the shop or tattoo parlor before they start. They should be able to explain the infection control procedures they use. They should be able to explain how they use sterile needles and razors, proper hand-washing techniques, when they will wear gloves, and how they keep instruments and surfaces clean. They should be able to show you that they only use single-use disposable needles and razors.
They should be able to explain to you the basics of how they sterilize and disinfect their re-usable equipment and instruments. You should be able to observe whether they appear to be cleaning and disinfecting work spaces and counters to avoid cross-contamination (spreading bacteria and viruses from one surface to another). They should also be ready to explain proper wound care for your procedure so that you don’t come down with a secondary bacterial infection (like staph or MRSA). The CDC has some additional information that you may want to review related to infections. If they give you a blank stare when you ask any of the questions above… head for the door!
By the way, the FDA doesn’t regulate the inks that are used in tattoos- so there isn’t much information on their safety. There have been reports of some people that are allergic to various ink pigments. Besides the potential for infection with pathogens, some people can develop granulomas, or small knots or bumps that can form around material that the body perceives as foreign (like particles of tattoo pigment). Some people get swelling or burning in the tattoo area when they have a magnetic resonance imaging procedure. If you get tired of your tattoo, you can also end up with unwanted scar or keloid tissue (piercings can result in scarring and keloid tissue too).