Health Risks Associated with Body Art

According to a recent article in Medical News Today, tattooing and body piercing are becoming increasingly popular, but these procedures can increase the risk of contracting a number of serious blood-borne diseases. A 2001 survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 51 percent of college students had piercings and 23 percent had tattoos. Studies show that the number of women with tattoos quadrupled between 1960 and 1980.

Skin and mucous membranes in the mouth and nose protect people from many infections. Both tattooing and ear/body piercing procedures involve piercing the skin or mucous membrane with a needle or other sharp instrument. Unless instruments are new, sterilized for each treatment and properly handled by the practitioner, they can be contaminated with the infected blood or bodily fluids of another person.

Bacteria or viruses present on the skin can enter the body and cause infection when skin is pierced. Practitioners, who tattoo and pierce, are also at risk of becoming infected through accidental cuts and punctures to their own bodies.

It is possible to transmit viral infections such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV/ AIDS and herpes through tattooing and piercing, as well as bacterial skin infections such as streptococcus and staphylococcus.

The best protection against disease and infection is to carefully choose where you obtain your tattoo or piercing. Many states have body art laws and regulations designed to protect the health of customers. Prospective customers should check and see if the tattoo/piercing establishment is regulated, and if so, what is their compliance history? The following measures are essential:

• The shop uses instruments that are easily cleaned and sterilized, such as stainless steel.
• The shop has a sterilizing machine, preferably a steam sterilizer, and test strips are used to indicate whether the machine is operating correctly.
• Tattooing or piercing is done with sterile needles.
• Those performing the procedure have clean working habits, including washing their hands before and after procedures and wearing gloves during the procedures.
• The shop has identified a “clean zone” in which procedures are conducted.
• Work surfaces are made of smooth and non-porous materials.
• All work surfaces should be regularly cleaned and disinfected with a solution of bleach and water.

(Ralph Morris, M.D., M.P.H., is a preventive health and public health physician, and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council)