Tattoos and Piercing: What You Should Know

Many people sport tattoos and body piercings in today’s society. It may be a form of rebellion, they may look at it as art, or they may like the attention that these type of body art draws. Whatever the reason, tattoos and body piercings are a personal choice. However, there are a few things you should know before you make an appointment for either because these types of body modifications can put your health at risk. Risks range from minor infections to life threatening complications. It’s imperative that if you’re considering a body piercing or tattoo that you have knowledge of all of the risks involved. An additional factor is to ensure the piercing or tattoo is performed correctly in order to reduce these risks.

What is a Tattoo?

A tattoo is a permanent design or mark that is made on your body. Needles are inserted into the top layer of skin and a pigment is injected. The needle is attached by a tube to a small machine that contains dyes. The needles pierce the skin continuously similar to the action of a sewing machine. Tiny drops of pigment are added to your skin each time the needle pierces it. The procedure causes a small amount of bleeding, which is continually wiped away but the tattoo artist. Tattoos can cause pain that range from minor to significant. It takes several hours for a large tattoo to be completed. Tattoos vary in size from minute to very large ones that cover a significant portion of the chest, torso or back. Some tattoos are so large that they have to be completed in several sessions.

When the tattoo is complete, a scab will form while it heals. The tattoo must be kept moist during the healing process. Many tattoo artists suggest keeping the finished design covered with a small coat of petroleum jelly.

Body Piercing

Usually, body piercing is done without any type of anesthetic. A hollow needle is inserted through the area of the body to be pierced, which inserts a piece of jewelry into the hold that is made. Some piercing practitioners use piercing guns that can damage your skin. These guns are very difficult to sterilize.


Piercings and tattoos breaks the body’s protective covering; the skin. Each time a needle penetrates it, you are at risk for infection. Tattoo pigments and some metal jewelry can cause allergic reactions. Other risks include blood borne diseases, skin disorders, regret, skin infections and, in the case of tongue or lip piercings, oral infections.

Blood Disorders

It is important that all piercings and tattoos be done with disposable needles. Equipment that is contaminated with infected blood can leave you open to any number of blood borne diseases, including Aids, HIV and hepatitis C. All of these disorders can be fatal if not diagnosed early and treated promptly. Other blood borne diseases include tetanus, hepatitis B and tuberculosis.

Allergic Reaction

Any tattoo dye, but especially red dye, can cause skin allergic reactions. This causes the site to break out in an itchy rash and can occur months or years after you have the tattoo. Jewelry used for piercings is often made of brass or nickel, which can also result in skin allergic reactions.

Skin Disorders

Tattoo dye, especially red dye, can cause bumps called “granulomas” to form. Tattoos can also cause kerloids, which are raised areas of excessive scarring. People who have darker skin are more prone to kerloids.

Oral Infections

If you are considering a tongue piercing, be aware that the jewelry worn can cause damage to gums and teeth. This is a very common occurrence.


If you are considering a tattoo, avoid names. Often people tattoo their body with the name of someone with whom they are having an intimate relationship. If you break up with the person, the tattoo is permanent and you may regret ever having it. Other times, a tattoo will affect a career move or it may no longer fit your image. Tattoos fade and blur over time and they may become unsightly after a number of years.

Skin Infection

Bacterial infection is a common side effect of piercings and tattoos. Symptoms include fevered skin, discharge that may or may not include pus, swelling and redness. These are unusual after tattoos, but are very common after any type of body piercing. Naval piercings can take up to nine months to completely heal because perspiration and tight clothing cause the area to remain damp and bacteria flourish in damp conditions.

If you’ve had a piercing in the upper cartilage of your ear and it becomes infected, it is serious. Cartilage has no blood supply and antibiotics are not effective because they are not carried to the site through the blood. This can cause permanent cartilage damage and permanent deformity.

Choosing a Piercing or Tattoo Studio

If you are considering a body piercing or tattoo, be sure the studio is reputable. This reduces the risk of complications. The studio should be clean, neat, tidy and orderly. Check with the Better Business Bureau or equivalent to assure the studio has no serious complaints filed against it.


The tattoo artist should always use needles and tubes from a new package before proceeding with a tattoo. Be sure the artist opens sealed packages to retrieve needles and tubes. Containers, pigments, and trays should also be new and unused. Sterile needles that are removed from the package in your presence should always be used to pierce skin.


An autoclave is a machine that sterilizes using heat. Be sure it has been used to sterilize any equipment that isn’t disposable before your procedure begins.

Disinfectant and Bleach

Any equipment that can’t be sterilized with an autoclave must be put into a bleach or disinfectant solution after each use. This includes drawer handles and pigment bottles. Sinks and tables should be cleaned thoroughly with a bleach or disinfectant solution.

Piercing Gun

Never allow a practitioner to give you a piercing with a piercing gun, as they cannot be sterilized in an autoclave. This increases your risk of infection and blood borne disease. Piercing guns can also crush skin, which can cause injury.


Be certain the tattoo artist or piercing practitioner washes their hands in a disinfectant solution from the tips of their fingers to their elbows and puts on a new pair of latex gloves before beginning your procedure. If a drawer is opened, or if the gloves touch anything besides your skin, insist that a new pair is used. This will prevent contamination of the tattoo or piercing site.


If you are having a piercing procedure, be sure the jewelry is 14 to 18 karat gold, surgical steel, niobium or titanium. Jewelry made of brass or nickel can cause severe allergic reactions.

If the tattoo artist or piercing practitioner is reputable, they will not hesitate to discuss any health or safety concerns that you may have. Ask questions and get answers that satisfy you and alleviate all of your concerns. If the establishment hesitates or refuses to address your concerns, find another studio. It’s your health that is at risk. Be certain that tattoo artists and piercing practitioners have proper certification. It is also a good idea to check with the local health department to ensure there has been no health complaints filed against the establishment you have chosen for your tattoo or body piercing. Protect your health.

by Mary M. Alward

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *