Question: Do you like tattoos? Do you have any tattoos? Have you ever heard a bad story about tattoos?
If you clicked on this story, you likely either have or are thinking about getting some ink. It might be your first embellishment (in tattoo-speak, you’re a tenderfoot), or maybe it’s your sixth (on your way to being a showcase). And you’re part of a massive trend. Nearly four in 10 millennials ages 18 to 29 have a tattoo; half of those have two to five tats, the vast majority hidden under clothing, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center report. Previous generations have about the same amount of ink: 40% of Gen Xers — who are now between 40 and 54 years old — sport a tattoo. Body art has become a form of self-expression. When visible, they tell the world something about you and what you like, about what you believe and value. Tattoos also pay homage to loved ones, permanently enshrining the names of lovers, precious children or dates of special significance.
But are they safe?
“It’s a persistent, almost chronic-like inflammation, which causes your whole tattoo to bubble up where the pigment is and become like thick, leathery skin,” Aguh said.
In Australia, doctors were treating a woman for a type of cancer called lymphoma. She had lumps under her arms, as well as enlarged lymph nodes near the roots of her lungs, all classic signs of the cancer.
But when they put those nodes under a microscope, they found out it was black tattoo ink placed there 15 years ago. She didn’t have cancer; her immune system was reacting to the tattoo on her back.
Another group of researchers studied cadavers with tattoos. In their lymph nodes they found carbon black ink, which breaks down easily into microscopically tiny bits called nanoparticles. They also found larger particles of titanium dioxide, a common ingredient in white ink. White ink is often used to mix tattoo colors.
Their most disturbing discovery, however, was toxic heavy metals in the lymph nodes, including cobalt, nickel and chromium. Heavy metals are sometimes added to tattoo pigment as preservatives.
“There are reports in the published scientific literature of tattoo inks that contain everything from pigments used in printer toner to pigments used in car paint,” said Dr. Linda Katz, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, in a published Q&A.
The FDA considers tattooing to be a cosmetic procedure, so it doesn’t regulate the industry. But it does look into adverse reactions.
Katz said the agency is analyzing tattoo inks and pigments for “heavy metals, degradants, potentially toxic chemicals — including pH stabilizers, microbicides and coating agents — and other materials that are not intended to be placed into the body.”
If you carry the gene for psoriasis, dermatologists warn, a tattoo might activate the disease for the first time, or cause a flare if you already have it.
Five days after getting a tattoo on his leg of a cross and hands in prayer, with the words “Jesus is my life” written in cursive below, he went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Within days he was in the hospital, infected with vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium commonly found in coastal ocean water.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the bacteria causes 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths every year in the United States.
The man went into septic shock, kidneys failing, and despite aggressive care died within a month.
Do your own thorough research before you get your tat; and in the meantime, here are a few key tips from dermatologists and tattoo artists:
- A thin layer of petroleum jelly and a bandage or plastic wrap should be applied by the artist before you leave the salon. Keep that on for 6 to 24 hours — ask your artist for recommendations — then remove carefully.
- With clean hands, gently wash the tattoo with antimicrobial soap and water and pat dry with a clean, soft cloth. Apply a very thin layer of antibiotic ointment and leave the tattoo open to breathe. Over the next few weeks you’ll want to wash the tattoo twice a day and apply moisturizer.
- For the first few days your skin may feel warm, appear reddish and even ooze plasma and ink. That’s a normal part of the process. If you see any sort of skin reaction after the first few days, however, visit a dermatologist. Infected skin could be redder, warmer and more painful, and could leak pus.
- Don’t go swimming or otherwise immerse yourself in water for at least two weeks. Quick showers are fine.
- Don’t pick at the scab or try to rub flakes off. Let them come off naturally to keep the ink in the skin and avoid scarring.
- The tattoo is likely to itch as it heals — don’t scratch, and apply moisturizer to help relieve the sensation.
- Wear protective, loose clothing to keep your tat out of the sun, but don’t apply sunblock until after it looks healed, which is around three weeks.
According to dermatologists, your tattoo may appear dull and cloudy as it heals, but should be to its full vibrant colors within four months, about the time that all layers of the tattooed skin have healed.