Tattoos: Understand risks and precautions

Tattoos might be more common than ever, but don't take tattooing lightly. Know the risks and understand basic safety precautions and aftercare steps. 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 getting tattoos stop you from making a thoughtful decision about permanent body art. Before you get a tattoo, make sure you know what's involved. Also, be certain that tattooing is the right decision for you.

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. Specific risks include:

  • 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 — which might cause redness, swelling, pain and a pus-like drainage — is possible after tattooing.
  • Other skin problems. Sometimes bumps called granulomas form around tattoo ink. Tattooing can also 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 — such as when a person who has permanent eyeliner has an MRI of the eye.

Medication or other treatment — including possible removal of the tattoo — 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.

Mar. 20, 2012 See more In-depth