Think before you ink

Thirty-six percent of Americans ages 18-25 have at least one tattoo. Bump the age bracket up to 26-40 and surprisingly, the number jumps to 40 percent. It’s clear that tattoos are breaking out of the realm of rebellious behavior and entering mainstream culture like ear piercing has already done, but that doesn’t mean you should head down to your local ink shop right away.

This isn’t a diatribe against body art or a somber warning that tattoos will affect your professional life. Rather, this is an attempt to give you the information you need to understand the health risks that attend the practice, and allow you to make healthy choices if you do decide to get inked.

Before you get a tattoo be sure to confirm that sterile equipment is being used.  Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

The concern that comes into most people’s minds when thinking about getting a tattoo is needle cleanliness. In a world where all kinds of nasty diseases can be passed around by needle-sharing, it’s important to make sure a tattoo artist properly sterilizes his or her equipment. To personally verify this, ask to see the autoclave and sterilization certification. An autoclave is a device that uses steam to sterilize the equipment. If an artist uses something else, such as a pressure-cooker used for kitchen work, leave! These devices cannot reach high enough temperature for proper sterilization.

It’s not enough just to have an autoclave, however. The device should be regularly spore tested, and you can ask to see the results of the latest test (which should be no more than two months old).

It’s also important to make sure the artist wears gloves during the procedure, removes a sterile needle from an autoclave bag while you watch and disposes of used needles in a sharps container. It’s also nice if the artist is vaccinated for Hepatitis B, though such vaccination is not yet a universal practice.

Besides the safety practices of the shop, it’s also important to check out what’s inside the ink itself. Many inks have been made from things like iron and mercury, and can cause serious health issues as these substances spread from the point of the tattoo all throughout your body.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast standards for what ingredients can be used in tattoo ink. While the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate tattoo ink, no such regulation has yet been implemented, with the administration claiming lack of evidence that such inks pose health risks.

Besides the ink itself, it’s also important to make sure the carrier is health-friendly. The carrier is an ingredient that keeps the pigment evenly mixed as it goes into the skin, and non-toxic options include purified water, glycerine and ethanol.

For now, your best course action is to find a reputable and professional shop and talk to the artist about your concerns. Many artists now take pride in using only organic materials in their inks, and will be willing to tell you what goes into each ink. If they refuse, you’re better off finding a different shop than risking your health. It may cost a little more to go to a shop with high standards, but the result will be a lasting work of art, rather than a lasting health hazard.


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