Perhaps the most common and consequently most likely negative effect on your health, getting a tattoo could bring you, is infection. As with any open wound or procedure which breaks the skin you open yourself to the risk of infection, however if you follow the right process both for choosing your artist and with regard to tattoo aftercare, you can greatly reduce these risks. After 15 years and many, many hours of tattooing, I have never (touch wood) had to deal with my tattoos getting infected. Do things the right way and you should be able to avoid infection, too.
How can I tell if my tattoo is infected?
As we already know, there is naturally going to be some redness and inflammation for a few days after getting a tattoo so how do you tell the difference between what is normal and what is a developing problem?
In the images above you can see two freshly done tattoos. The image on the left demonstrates both the "before and after" of a tattoo healing. The upper half of the tattoo has been done during a previous session and his healed and shows no redness, while the lower half shows the localised reddening that is part and parcel of getting tattooed. The second image is of a much smaller piece, done in one session and which demonstrates the redness surrounding the whole tattoo. In both instances this is perfectly normal.
Over the first two or three days this redness will fade and while the tattoo will be tender to the touch it won't be wont be, what I would call, painful. As it heals the skin will scab slightly which in turn will start to drop off of their own accord or come away while you are washing the tattooed area (remember do not pick these off, let them come away on their own). Then, hey presto! After two or three weeks of carefully tending your new tattoo it should be fully healed and the job is, as they say, done.
Symptoms of an infected tattoo
Redness, swelling and sensitivity - As I've already mentioned your tattoo will be red, sensitive to the touch and maybe slightly swollen for two or three days after you've had a tattoo. However, if these symptoms persist or worsen beyond the third day, you may have a problem.
Itching - Itching is another symptom of infection that unfortunately also occurs as part of the natural healing process, however if this itching, for want of a better word, travels outward away from the tattoo and/or becomes a particularly strong itch, this could well be a sign of infection.
Heat - In the event of an infection the affected area may become warm or hot to the touch this could be accompanied by increased inflammation of the infected area.
Discharge - If your tattoo starts to discharge a foul smelling fluid or pus (not to be confused with the natural weeping that occurs over the first few days) you should seek medical attention at the first opportunity. If you've allowed your tattoo to become infected to this stage, you could have serious problems.
Red lines- If you see red lines radiating out from the tattoo this is symptom of lymphangitis, another sign of serious infection, potentially blood poisoning. As with a discharge, you should seek medical attention at once.
Fever - If you become feverish and have any of the other symptoms already mentioned this, once again, is a sign that you may have a serious infection and, once again, you should seek urgent medical attention.
Seriously infected tattoo
Non-tattoo related lymphangitis
As with anything that is having an adverse effect on your health, the earlier you act the quicker and easier it is to remedy. If you suspect you have an infection speak to your tattooist, he or she should be able to confirm or allay your fears or alternatively see your local doctor. The consequences of failing to act, particularly if you have blood poisoning, can be very serious indeed. I cannot stress enough the importance of doing your homework on your artist and of taking good care of the tattoo after it's been done.
Allergic Reaction to Tattoos
Of all the health risks posed by getting tattooed, allergies are probably the least predictable and hardest to avoid. How your body will physically react to the presence of the ink in your skin will remain a mystery until you've had it done and was the only concern I personally had before I got tattooed. In the end, my lack of other allergies was the deciding factor in going ahead. To my joy, I have suffered no ill consequences as a result but, as with so many things, everyone is different.
Sadly, much as I would like to I can offer little in the way of advice as to how any one person can avoid an allergic reaction, of course not getting tattooed at all is a certain way to avoid an allergic reaction to tattoos but, where's the fun in that?
What's in Tattoo Ink?
What exactly is in tattoo pigment, or as it's more commonly known....ink? Well, that's a big question with a vague answer. The ingredients of tattoo ink are wide, varied and differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. The ink that ends up in your skin could contain a variety of chemicals, varieties of alcohol, a selection of metals and plastics.
To illustrate some of the things you may find in tattoo pigment are;
Mercury (found in red cinnabar)
Cadmium sulphite (sometimes used in yello inks and which can react badly to direct sunlight)
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (a plastic used to make luggage and pipe fittings among other things)
Benzoapyrene (found to cause cancer in animals)
The list goes on and on and, unfortunately, as there is little regulation with regard to the ingredients of tattoo pigment you simply won't know what's in your tattooists chosen brand of ink unless you ask.
Some inks are safer than others, for example the American brand, Intenze, set out to make the best and safest inks on the market, whether they achieved that is for the professionals to say, but in a world where even the artists are calling for greater regulation with regard to the quality of inks available, Intenze's efforts which include third party laboratory testing and ensuring that their inks conform to New Jersey's regulations for cosmetics and ensuring that their inks conform to all relevant EU safety standards, suggests that if they haven't then they certainly intend to.
There are also inks available which are vegan friendly, so there is certainly a hope that you will be able to find an artist who uses inks which will settle your mind. Of course, at the end of the day, if you aren't convinced then there is also the option of not getting tattooed in the first place, the only sure fire way to guarantee you don't have a reaction to tattoo pigment.
Unfortunately, best advice I can give in regard to allergies is that, if you do have allergies or allergic reactions are something that deeply concerns you, you should speak to the tattooist and ask him or her what exactly is in the inks they use.
Will my tattoo give me Cancer?
"Tattoos could give you cancer, new research suggests", trumpeted the Mail Online. Well, in true Daily Mail fashion they made the bold statement and then failed to back it up with any solid evidence to support it. An article on the NHS Choices website from September 2017 (click here to read the full article) dissects this claim and the research they used to create this sensational headline. Here are the salient points from the NHS Choices' article.
The research was carried out by researchers from four European organisations; the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, Physikalische-Teknische Bundesanstalt, the Institute of Forensic Medicine in German and the department of X-Ray Spectrometry European Synchrotron Radiation facility in France.
The researchers conducted post mortem skin and lymph node tests on samples from six donors. Four of the donors had tattoos, two did not.
The research showed that there was evidence that tattoo ink particles can spread to the lymph nodes. Tattoo inks often contain metals such as aluminium, chromium, iron, nickel, titanium and copper. The most common tattoo pigment used, carbon black, was "not accessible" with the methods used during this research. Metals such as these have been linked to cancer.
Two of the four tattooed donors showed signs that organic pigments from tattoo ink had migrated to skin tissue and lymph nodes. The other two donors showed no signs of this migration, possibly due to extremely low levels or because the particles had degraded.
There were "Biomolecular" changes to the tissue surrounding the ink particles, this tissue contained more lipids and less protein than other nearby tissue that did not contain ink particles.
At first glance this all sounds pretty grim. Potentially, cancer causing, toxic metals can move from your tattoo to your lymph nodes and we all know that lymph nodes are exactly the place you don't want cancer to get. There's a but, in fact there are many buts.
From the moment you get your tattoo, your body treats it as a foreign body and sets about trying to get rid of it. Tiny piece by tiny piece white blood cells gnaw away at your tattoo and carry them away to be passed from your body naturally. Your immune system doesn't like your tattoo and wants rid, finding these metals in you lymph nodes is perhaps no surprise as they are a part of your lymphatic system which is in turn part of.....yep, your immune system.
The researchers neglected to provide useful information like the donors' cause of death or whether they even had cancer. If the subject wasn't killed by cancer and didn't even have cancer it is impossible to make the claim that tattoo ink can cause cancer.
There has been very little study done on the effects tattoos can have on human health. This is in part because, as tattoos are a choice, testing on animals is considered unethical and "not a medical necessity". In short you can't tattoo a rat to see if it gets cancer.
There is no evidence to suggest that the transfer of tattoo ink particles to lymph nodes has any negative effect on human health at all, so it's something a stretch to say it can cause cancer.
The research forgets to mention that lymph nodes taken from the armpit which contain aluminium could just have easily absorbed the metal from the use of antiperspirants.
The Mail Online claims that the use of titanium dioxide in white tattoo pigment is "controversial" and that the chemical has been "linked to cancer". This is utterly misleading as there is no evidence that titanium dioxide is linked to cancer, with the possible exception of the chemical being inhaled. So, don't snort white tattoo ink!
The research sample size is far too small to form the basis for such wild conclusions. You may as well find six homeless people, four with tattoos (two of which are alcoholics) and two without and use this sample to conclude that tattoos can lead to homelessness and alcoholism.
NHS Choices concludes that, based on the information available, people who already have tattoos have should not be unduly concerned and that the research does not show that people with tattoos are more likely to have cancer. For people who are thinking about getting their first tattoo, they suggest that if you are concerned about what is in the ink you should ask about the contents of the inks used by a tattooist at the same time that you are checking out the hygiene of their premises and equipment.
The Guardian's story cites a 2012 paper by Finnish researchers that found the number of skin cancers in tattoos "seemingly low" and that any link between skin cancer and tattoos had to be considered, "thus far coincidental".
The Guardian goes on to quote Hayley Goldbach (resident physician in dermatology at UCLA), she says that, "Just because something can cause cancer doesn’t mean that it does,” she continued, “As far as I know there have not been any studies convincingly or conclusively linking tattoo pigment to an increased risk for cancer.
The article also quotes Tyler Hollmig, director of Laser and Aesthetic Dermatology at Stanford University, while he does say that he sees skin cancer in and around tattoos, it's hard to say whether or not it's the tattoo pigment that causes it. He goes on,
“You figure that you inject the carcinogen and skin cancer grows there, but we don’t have data on that", Hollmig also provides perhaps the perfect footnote to the whole debate, "The question is, what’s in the tattoo and what can it do to the body? The answer is, we just don’t know."