What are the health risks to getting a tattoo?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Tattooing is associated with a number of health risks. It can cause people to develop granulomas, or raised bumps around the tattooed area. Bumps of scar tissue that form on or near the tattoo are called keloids. Some people have allergic reactions to tattoo ink, and others get bacterial infections. If instruments are not properly sanitized in between uses, tattooing can also cause transmission of blood-borne diseases like tetanus, hepatitis, and HIV.

Tattoos involve needles and blood, so they carry several risks including the transmission of diseases like hepatitis, tuberculosis and maybe HIV. When tattoo artists follow the correct sterilization and sanitation procedures, risks are lowered. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has not been a documented case of someone contracting HIV from a tattoo. Doctors still warn that non-sterile tattooing can lead to the transmission of diseases including syphilis and hepatitis B.

Infections can occur in new tattoos and some people can experience allergic reactions to tattoo inks. Even though the pigments used might have U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for other purposes, the FDA doesn't regulate tattoo inks. Finally, some people can experience pain or burning during MRI exams because of metallic pigments. Doctors have also reported interference and distorted MRIs from permanent makeup pigments.

Most states place restrictions on whether people with tattoos can donate blood. This is because of the danger of hepatitis. The American Red Cross will not accept blood from anyone who has gotten a tattoo in the past year unless the tattoo parlor was state-regulated. Still, most states do not regulate tattoo parlors.

Tattoo artists use rules known as universal precautions to help prevent the spread of disease during tattooing. These precautions are issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and also apply to hospitals.

  • Check gloves for pinhole tears during tattooing
  • Pour ink in advance and use clean tissue to open ink bottles
  • Pat tubes dry after rinsing during color changes
  • Spraying liquid soap into a tissue, not directly onto a bleeding area
  • When pens are used for drawing on the skin, give them to the client afterward
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Know the health risks before you get a tattoo, including the possibility of serious infection or disease. To learn more about tattoos and health risks, watch this video by Dr. Oz. 

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine
Single, professionally crafted tattoos pose little true medical risks, but any time you are dealing with breaking the barrier of the skin, there can be transmission of infection. Some infections can leave you with a very disappointing outcome, but with proper skin care (and antiseptic technique during its creation) most tattoos are relatively safe. Though it is uncommon, there are cases of hepatitis C that have been transmitted from tattoos. Make sure the tattoo artist is not only using clean needles, but fresh ink as well.
And remember that tattoos need to be considered a permanent choice (translation, do not make this an impulsive, perhaps alcohol-enhanced decision). There is reason that you see so many ads for laser tattoo removal.
Arthur W. Perry, MD
Plastic Surgery
Aside from the permanence of tattoos, other problems can arise. Certainly infections are a possibility whenever the skin is penetrated. Although they can be serious, most are easily treatable with antibiotics. Still, viruses such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis B and C can be transmitted through tattoos.

Even if the tattoo establishment looks clean and has a sterilizing autoclave, and even if disposable one-time use needles are used, you can still get sick. The pigments used by the average tattoo artist are not individually packaged, sterile pigments. If they were used, the price of the tattoo would triple or quintuple. In light of this downside, health departments should mandate sterile pigments as well as sterile needles. Until they do, it is "buyer beware."
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.