Think before you ink! Are you wondering if there are any health risks? Yes, there are some and this post is to highlight them so that you can make an informed decision before you get your first or next tattoo. Tattoos have been around for about 5,000 years but nobody knows what the long term health effects are because they have never been extensively studied and are unknown.
What we do know is that, apart from short term side effects, nobody knows what happens to the ink and what effects it has on the major organs and body tissue. Studies done on corpses with tattoos show that the ink had long disappeared from the skin but it is a mystery as to whether it was safely excreted or whether it caused toxicity and other health problems. Research in The Lancet found that there was no link with cancer but that is only one study and they also warn that tattoo ink may contain possible carcinogens.
1. Inks are not just color pigments
What goes into a tattoo ink? Apart from color pigments, there may be heavy metals (mercury, lead and arsenic) which may be linked to cancer and birth defects. Then, there are other ingredients such as pen ink, soot, blood and anything else dreamed up by the tattoo artist. That is why Californian tattoo parlors are required by law to warn customers of these dangers. There are no international regulations in force for tattoo inks either.
The Danish government has published a report on the minerals and preservatives in many of the tattoo inks. They found that most inks contained a large amount of copper, chrome and zinc while the amounts of tin, lead, arsenic, mercury, and uranium tended to be in smaller amounts. The main preservatives used were benzoic acid, metylisothiazoline and octylthiazolone.
2. There must be some regulation about the inks
Actually, there is none. The FDA considers tattooing rather like cosmetic applications so it has not bothered to regulate what should be allowed in the ink. The FDA only investigates complaints and occasionally issues warnings about the doubtful ingredients in these pigments. It is astonishing to think that 120 million people in the western world have at least one tattoo and the whole industry is almost totally unregulated!
3. Think about what happens during the process
The needle used by the artist is rather like a sewing machine needle. It contains the coloring and this is repeatedly injected under the skin so it can and does enter the bloodstream. This can lead to infections if the needle or the ingredients are not sterilized. Hepatitis and the super bug MRSA have been linked to tattoos so that is always why you should check out the equipment before being treated. Are the needles in sealed units and is the ink in unopened containers?
4. Check out the artist first
You can do some preliminary checks. There is no regulation or official training for tattoo artists and yet they are allowed to inject you with some ingredients containing preservatives and even potentially toxic metals. But there are top quality tattoo artists who work in a professional manner so it is always worthwhile doing your homework first.
You might want to check out the portfolio of the artist and see the quality of the work. Look out for signs of bleeding in the photos and if the skin has been damaged in any way. This happens when they have to pack a lot of color into a tiny space and if they are inexperienced, the skin will look beat up and show areas of light color. It takes skill and expertise to get that part of the tattoo right.
Look at the designs and samples shown. There should be a good mix of color, traditional and realism in the photos. You can look at the premises and see whether they are clean and well managed. Prices are also a good indicator of quality and you can pay up to $100 an hour on average although better artists can easily ask three times that much.
5. Plan the whole operation carefully
If you do decide to go ahead, bear in mind that you should start off with a small design on a part of your skin which is less sensitive to pain. Bony areas are notoriously painful, so start off with an area which has plenty of flesh. Also avoid sensitive areas like the groin as no anaesthetic is given. There may be pain, minor skin infection or an allergic reaction. Many people recommend eating something beforehand as that lessens the pain.
Try to avoid alcohol as that tends to thin your blood and that will likely cause more bleeding. Check your spelling of the design you have chosen, especially if it is in Chinese. You may have thought it meant “beautiful” but the spelling you have chosen means a “giant squid”!
6. Follow after care instructions carefully
You will probably be given a healing ointment to apply so that the tattoo remains moisturized. Make sure you wash the tattoo with very mild soap and gently dry it with a clean towel. Avoid tight clothes so that there is a minimum of friction around the tattoo area. You can keep a light bandage on it. Avoid direct sunlight and forget about the swimming pool as chlorine can irritate the skin.
Now that you know all the essential information about what is actually getting into your skin and bloodstream, you can make an informed decision about whether a tattoo is right for you!
Featured photo credit: Adam Levine/ katrina3094 via flickr.com