Tattoos done in a home, in prison, or in an unlicensed facility carry grave health risks. This article is about the health risks associated with being tattooed in a clean, licensed, and proper tattoo facility- NOT about home tattoos or jail tattoos. Those are TOO DAMN RISKY FOR ME TO EVEN TALK ABOUT.
In some states, tattoo artists and studios are regulated by the state and have to meet health requirements. In some states this goes so far as to test artists for various communicable diseases. In others, it merely requires training in the control of bloodborne pathogens and sterile, disposable equipment. Studios will usually not tattoo anyone who is intoxicated on any substance, or who is under the age of 18. Most states have laws pertaining to this, and most studios will turn away anyone who is incapable of legally signing a consent form.
Tattoo studios should use sterilized, one-use, disposable needles. Artists in most shops will be glad to open the packages in front of a client. Also, artists should wash their hands before and after tattooing. Watching a tattoo artist set up their equipment is a good way to ascertain that the studio is a clean one.
In a clean environment like a basic tattoo studio, most surfaces are disinfected daily if not more often. Equipment used for the tattoo and surfaces used during the procedure are disinfected or disposable; if disinfected, this will be done before and after every tattoo. The real health risks of your tattoo begin when you walk out the door, and peel off the bandage.
A fresh, professionally done tattoo is an open abrasion, not unlike a serious brushburn. It will ooze some plasma (a clear liquid) and some blood, for the first few hours. During this time the skin is open to any and all bacteria that can attack it. Following care instructions, and keeping the bandage on for a while, is a good way to ensure its protection against nasty bacterial infections. Staph and strep are notorious for attacking large open skin abrasions, and unwrapping a bandage to show off a new tattoo is a good way to invite these infections.
The first night with a new tattoo is also a risky time. Sleeping on dirty sheets and blankets, cleaning the tattoo with a used towel, even using a bar of soap on it, can all transfer bacteria to the waiting surface. Bar soap carries bacteria from the rest of the body, and only a liquid antibacterial soap should be used for the first few days. Any roommate’s or friend’s clothing, towels, and especially touching or poking at a new tattoo, should be avoided. No, your dog’s mouth is not sterile. Keep pets away from fresh tattoos!
When a tattoo is fresh, it should be treated just like any other open wound. If someone else’s bodily fluids contact it, this risks infection with any virus or bacteria they may have. Infections can cause pus, redness, swelling, and in extreme cases shock, and even death. Keeping a fresh tattoo clean until it has finished oozing is very important. An infection can also cause scarring on the skin that may only be reparable with plastic surgery. So if you plan to go to the gym, disinfect any equipment you’ll use. Wash your hands before touching your tattoo. Try to keep it covered just in case! Gym equipment can have MRSA on it, so be very very careful!
If you are planning to get tattooed, check the studio’s references. Look for a clean, respectable studio, with portfolios showing healed work that looks clean. Ask questions when you arrive. A good studio will show you their autoclave, and the spore test that proves it is working. They will unwrap dated and sterilized equipment for your tattoo, wear gloves, and dispose of used needles when you are finished. Be aware that all professionals are more than happy to answer your health and safety questions. If they will not answer, or you feel uncomfortable, go to a different studio.
Professional tattooing has its risks, but they are much less serious than the risks of getting tattooed by a non-professional. When needles are not sterile before use they can harbor bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mold. Homes have bacteria in uncountable amounts in the air, let alone on a surface. Get tattooed in a professional setting and avoid the risk of communicable diseases.