Tattoos and Piercings: Body Art Health Tips

University of Michigan doctor reveals the risks and to how to avoid them.
Written by Maria White

Many kids covet them, and most parents dread them. But like it or not, tattoos and body piercings are all the rage. “There’s really nothing new about decorating the body,” says David Rosen, MD, MPH, Teenage & Young Adult Medicine , U-M Health System. “What we have seen during the past 10 or even 20 years, though, is a marked increase in the number of people – particularly younger Americans – getting body modifying procedures such as tattoos and body piercings,” he says. In fact, a recent survey of university undergraduate students revealed that more than one-half of those students had some type of body piercing and about 23 percent of the students had tattoos.

But unlike other more typical forms of self-expression – makeup, clothing, hair style – body art can lead to complications that range from irritating to downright dangerous. Localized infections, allergic reactions, scarring and exposure to life-threatening blood-borne infections, including hepatitis C and HIV, make this trendy practice one to consider seriously.

Piercings typically involve puncturing the skin with a needle and squeezing a piece of jewelry into place with a plier-like device. “The popular areas of piercing are the ear lobe, of course, as well as the tongue and belly button,” says Rosen. “We also see piercings of the eyebrow, lips, nipples, genitals and pretty much any other part of the body you can name.” The risks from piercing are actually surprising high, says Rosen. An estimated one in four people will develop some type of infection. Nerve damage is also a risk if the person doing the piercing is inexperienced or untrained. “Avoid tongue, upper ear, genital and nipple piercings; these often pose higher risks,” cautions Rosen.

Tattoos are created by rapidly and repeatedly injecting ink into the dermal layer of the skin with a small needle to develop a permanent coloration. A small tattoo takes about 45 minutes and a larger one may take many hours or repeated visits. Beyond the pain often associated with getting a tattoo, other risks include skin and blood infections, allergic reactions to the pigments and thick scars called keloids. However, the most common reason people with tattoos seek medical care is that they want the tattoo removed. “Keep in mind that the complete removal of a tattoo is very difficult,” says Rosen. “Take the time to make sure the artwork you’ve chosen to be embedded into your skin is something you’ll be able to live with for decades,” he continues.

Tips for choosing a piercing or tattoo studio

The use of needles, injections and mechanical devices would seem to cry for regulation, but, in fact, body piercing and tattooing are unregulated in most U.S. states and are illegal in a few.

So when it comes to body art, it’s “buyer beware,” says Rosen. He recommends going to a reputable piercing or tattoo studio with well-trained staff. To evaluate cleanliness and safety, check that:

  • Equipment is sterilized in an autoclave machine between each use.
  • Needles are sterile – they should be unwrapped in front of you and thrown away after use.
  • Inks are never reused from person to person
  • Gloves are fresh and replaced between procedures or after touching non-sterile items.

“If you go to a tattoo studio, you should expect the same things as you do from a dentist’s office, if not more,” says Jeff Zuck, tattoo artist. “You should also look for a good artist, for somebody who has good referrals.”

Rosen adds, “Give as much consideration to what you’re going to put on your body as you would any other big decision that you make, and absolutely shop around for the safest, most experienced, most artistic person you can find because the results will be important for the rest of your life.”

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