Are Tattoos Safe?

I am seeing a rising trend in tattooing in India. Even on Facebook and Flicker, girls and boys are uploading their photos of tattoos done on their body parts. As the popularity of tattoos continues to grow, so does the concern about potential risks.

Some risks, such as the spread of infections through the use of unsterilized needles, have long been known. But what isn’t clear is the safety of tattoo inks.

Before getting a tattoo or permanent make-up, here is what you should know.

A tattoo is a mark or design on the skin. Tattooing has been practiced in most parts of the world, and examples have been found on Egyptian and Nubian mummies dating from 2000 . Decoration is perhaps the most common motive, though designs may also serve to identify rank, status, or membership and are thought by some to provide magical protection against sickness or misfortune.

There are many different kinds of tattoos.

For example:

  • Permanent tattoos—A needle is used to insert colored ink into the skin.
  • Permanent make-up—This is a permanent tattoo that looks like make-up, such as eyebrow pencil, lip liner, eyeliner or blush.
  • Henna (mehndi) tattoos—A natural plant dye called henna or mehndi is used to stain the skin. This kind of tattoo does not use needles. The color lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Henna is only approved by US FDA for use as a hair dye. It is not approved for use on the skin, but in India it is trendy to paint mehndi on hands and feet during festivals and wedding time.
  • “Sticker” type temporary tattoos—The tattoo design is on a piece of coated paper. It is put on the skin with water or may be rubbed off onto the skin. Temporary tattoos last only a few days. They must contain only colors permitted for use in cosmetics applied to the skin. This kind is more prevalent in school and college girls.

Why would someone want a tattoo or permanent make-up?

  • They want to restore a natural look to the face or breast, especially after surgery.
  • They have trouble putting on make-up as a result of a medical condition.
  • They have lost their eyebrows.
  • They find it appealing.
  • Cultural or societal influences.

Getting a tattoo – Remember …

Think very carefully before getting a tattoo. Most tattoos are permanent. Removing tattoos and permanent make-up can be hard and can cost a lot of money. Sometimes, it cannot be done. It often means surgery and scarring.

What are the risks of tattooing?

The following are the primary complications that can result from tattooing:

  • Infection. Unsterile tattooing equipment and needles can transmit infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and skin infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) bacteria*. Tattoos received at facilities not regulated by your state or at facilities that use unsterile equipment (or re-use ink) may prevent you from being accepted as a blood or plasma donor for twelve months.
  • Removal problems. Despite advances in laser technology, removing a tattoo is a painstaking process, usually involving several treatments and considerable expense. Complete removal without scarring may be impossible.
  • Allergic reactions. Although FDA has received reports of numerous adverse reactions associated with certain shades of ink in permanent makeup, marketed by a particular manufacturer, reports of allergic reactions to tattoo pigments have been rare. However, when they happen they may be particularly troublesome because the pigments can be hard to remove. Occasionally, people may develop an allergic reaction to tattoos they have had for years.
  • Granulomas. These are nodules that may form around material that the body perceives as foreign, such as particles of tattoo pigment.
  • Keloid formation. If you are prone to developing keloids — scars that grow beyond normal boundaries — you are at risk of keloid formation from a tattoo. Keloids may form any time you injure or traumatize your skin. Micropigmentation: State of the Art, a book written by Charles Zwerling, M.D., Annette Walker, R.N., and Norman Goldstein, M.D., states that keloids occur more frequently as a consequence of tattoo removal.
  • MRI complications. There have been reports of people with tattoos or permanent makeup who experienced swelling or burning in the affected areas when they underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This seems to occur only rarely and apparently without lasting effects.

Tattoo Tips for Consumers

  • Even US FDA has not approved any tattoo pigments for injection into the skin. This applies to all tattoo pigments, including those used for ultraviolet (UV) and glow-in-the-dark tattoos. Many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.
  • The use of henna in temporary tattoos has not been approved by US FDA. Henna is approved only for use as a hair dye.
  • Consider tattoos permanent. Removal is time-consuming, costly, and doesn’t always work. The most common method of tattoo removal is by laser treatment, which delivers short flashes of light at very high intensities to the skin to break down the tattoo ink. US FDA allows several types of lasers to be marketed for tattoo removal. Some color inks are harder to remove than others. Many repeat visits every several weeks may be required to remove a tattoo, and it may never be entirely gone.
  • Do not buy or order online do-it-yourself tattoo removal products. These acid-based products are not US FDA-approved and can cause bad skin reactions.
  • Consult your health care provider—not a tattoo parlor—if you want a tattoo removed. Your family physician can help you find a doctor experienced in tattoo removal.
Don’t Avoid an MRI:
  • If you need to have an MRI done, don’t avoid it. Inform the radiologist or technician that you have a tattoo so appropriate precautions can be taken.

Tattoo – A Common Problem: Dissatisfaction

A common problem that may develop with tattoos is the desire to remove them. Removing tattoos and permanent makeup can be very difficult.

Although tattoos may be satisfactory at first, they sometimes fade. Also, if the tattooist injects the pigments too deeply into the skin, the pigments may migrate beyond the original sites, resulting in a blurred appearance.

Another cause of dissatisfaction is that the human body changes over time, and styles change with the season. The permanent makeup that may have looked flattering when first injected may later clash with changing skin tones and facial or body contours. People who plan to have facial cosmetic surgery are advised that the appearance of their permanent makeup may become distorted. The tattoo that seemed stylish at first may become dated and embarrassing. And changing tattoos or permanent makeup is not as easy as changing your mind.

Consult your healthcare provider about the best removal techniques for you.

Enjoy your healthy skin naturally.

4 thoughts on “Are Tattoos Safe?”

  1. Low quality saloons often don’t take care of these needles and stuff and inks. They use low quality inks and used needles which may cause HIV. So while tattooing look for the hygienic condition of the saloon.

  2. Greetings, Dr. Singhal. I recently purchased a case of ready to use Indian henna in cones, for mehndi for my daughter and her friends. Usually I read ingredients of anything we put on our bodies, but I (foolishly) assumed it was just henna and oil. To my dismay, it turns out to have turpentine in it, though it’s the last ingredient. I am concerned about this! Any comments?

  3. Dear Carey, thanks visiting my blog.

    Well, oil of turpentine is obtained from live trees, mainly pines. Medically, there are confirmed cases of irritation of the skin after the application of turpentine oil on skin, because turpentine acts as local irritant.

    Chronic exposure to turpentine may lead to dermatitis or eczema, with irritation, redness, swelling, and small or large fluid-filled blisters on the skin.

    Please test your henna on a small spot of skin of forearm. If you find any redness, swelling or irritation then wash skin with soap and water. If irritation persists or a large skin area was affected, get medical attention immediately. And, do not use those henna cones.

    I am sure this would help you.


    Dr Singhal

  4. Lady Gaga shows off her new cherub tattoo on the back of her head. The singer was seen in the body art when she arrived at her hotel in Paris.


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Dr. Anil Singhal MD (Homeo)