Looking to get inked? You'll definitely want to check out the Food and Drug Administration's updated tattoo consumer recommendations before going under the needle.
The FDA recently released new information about the potential risks of getting tattooed — pegged to 363 incident reports recorded between 2004 and 2016. The reports include mentions of scarring, allergy-related rashes, and — perhaps most concerning — moldy or contaminated tattoo ink. So if you're not careful about where you go, you might end up with an artist who uses non-sterile equipment or ink that has bacteria or mold in it. (But don't freak out just yet!)
Bobby Buka, MD, a New York dermatologist, tells SELF he's encountered plenty of cases of tattoos-gone-wrong in his practice. Some are allergic reactions, and others are flare-ups of pre-existing skin conditions (like psoriasis). But he's also seen several patients who have bacterial or fungal infections — like the kind that result from unsanitary conditions. "As tattoos become more prevalent, we see a wider range of artists," Buka said. "And some of these artists don't follow the same strict standard procedures that more dedicated artists do."
Since the FDA doesn't regulate artists (instead, the licensing requirements vary from state to state), the conditions of tattoo parlors can vary. (If you're interested, you can look up your state's regulations here.) That applies to everything from the ink to the parlors themselves, so you'll want to do some research before committing to an artist.
Tattoo contamination is obviously gross — and potentially dangerous. But it doesn't mean you have to avoid getting inked from here on out.
The FDA suggested a few steps you can take to avoid a less-than-sanitary tattoo experience. For one thing, watch your tattoo artist clean and prep their equipment. Are they using new, sterile needles for each customer? They should be. Keep your eye on the actual ink, as well. Artists often mix water in with their pigments — does that water seem to be sterile and coming from a reliable source?
And remember, the FDA doesn't regulate tattoo inks, so some of them contain ingredients commonly found in car paint and printer toner. It's up to you to do your homework to find out what's in the products that tattoo parlors use before you go there. If that information isn't readily available online, feel free to ask your artist for more information. Buka said good tattoo artists will be open about their procedure — taking products out of sealed packaging in front of clients, switching the protective sleeve on the tattoo gun between uses, and using new inks instead of communal ink pots. Worth noting: Almost all states require that tattoo artists undergo bloodborne pathogen training (you can ask to see the certificate), and in New York and California, artists are required to open new equipment in front of you.
One final tip (that the FDA didn't include in its recommendations): Follow your gut. "The writing's usually on the wall," Julia Tzu, MD, founder of Wall Street Dermatology, tells SELF. "If [the parlor] looks dirty, that's a pretty good way to figure out whether you should go inside and get your tattoo there."
And if things do go awry, don't ignore it.
Let's say you've recently gotten a tattoo, and you're a little worried your skin isn't healing properly. It's time to pay a visit to your doctor. "If you suspect an infection, if you're experiencing pain, or if something just doesn't seem right, see your dermatologist," Tzu said. A medical professional can test the area to see what's causing the problem — whether it's an allergy, a skin irritation, or a bacteria. From there, they can determine how best to treat your situation. If the area is infected, for example, dermatologists can prescribe an appropriate antifungal or antibacterial medication to help you recover, according to Tzu.
And if something seems off, don't ignore it! A skin irritation might subside over time, but an infection might not — and that can cause more serious problems. "If you ignore it or treat it with tea tree oil for four weeks or something like that, the infection can spread through the blood," Buka explains. "This can be life-threatening." But Buka said most of the time, tattoo-related infections are "uncomplicated" — especially if you get appropriate treatment early on.
This is no reason to swear off tattoos for the rest of your life. Just do your homework ahead of time.
Don't let this news dissuade you from getting that ink you've always wanted. The FDA cited 363 incidents from a 12-year period — that's not that many, especially when you remember that 21 to 24 percent of Americans (more than 68 million people) have tattoos. Just look into local tattoo artists and their sanitation procedures before going in and getting inked, and talk to a dermatologist if you have any concerns after the fact.
And think twice before getting a tattoo abroad, Buka said. Since there are different sanitation guidelines in different countries, make sure you understand what those are before you go under the needle. And even if getting tattooed on the beach seems like it'll make for a fun, trendy story, it's probably a bad idea, Buka said.
While the updated FDA recommendations are a little frightening, they're a good reminder to be careful when it comes to doing things to your skin. Like the FDA said, "Think before you ink."
Just to be clear, these cases are rare. Like I said before, more than 68 million Americans have tattoos, and the FDA cited 363 incidents over a 12-year period. In the grand scheme of things, that's nothing. Cases like these are rare, and the vast majority of tattoo parlors and artists take sanitation very seriously. Again, don't let this scare you out of getting that tattoo you've always wanted. Just trust your gut when something seems wrong.