Tattoos: Understand risks and precautions

Tattoos might be more common than ever, but don't take the risks lightly. Understand basic safety precautions and aftercare.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

You could be the proud owner of a new tattoo in a matter of hours — but don't let the ease of the process stop you from thinking carefully about permanent body art. Before you get a tattoo, make sure you know what's involved and how to reduce the possible risks.

How tattoos are done

A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on your skin with pigments inserted through pricks into the skin's top layer. Typically, the tattoo artist uses a hand-held machine that acts much like a sewing machine, with one or more needles piercing the skin repeatedly. With every puncture, the needles insert tiny ink droplets.

The process — which is done without anesthetics — causes a small amount of bleeding and slight to potentially significant pain.

Know the risks


Tattoos breach the skin, which means that skin infections and other complications are possible, including:

  • Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes — especially red, green, yellow and blue dyes — can cause allergic skin reactions, such as an itchy rash at the tattoo site. This can occur even years after you get the tattoo.
  • Skin infections. A skin infection is possible after tattooing.
  • Other skin problems. Sometimes bumps called granulomas form around tattoo ink. Tattooing also can lead to keloids — raised areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.
  • Bloodborne diseases. If the equipment used to create your tattoo is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract various bloodborne diseases — including tetanus, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
  • MRI complications. Rarely, tattoos or permanent makeup might cause swelling or burning in the affected areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams. In some cases, tattoo pigments can interfere with the quality of the image.

Medication or other treatment might be needed if you experience an allergic reaction to the tattoo ink or you develop an infection or other skin problem near a tattoo.

March 06, 2015 See more In-depth