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Home > Health Topics > Healthy Outlook > Body Art: Better Safe than Sorry

Body Art: Better Safe than Sorry

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2011
By Vernon Hampton, REHS

Let's face it: Body art is popular and relatively easy to have done. In a matter of hours, you could have a new tattoo or piercing. But, do your research now so that a quick procedure doesn't cause serious side effects.

Body art can be many things. In addition to traditional tattoos, it can be permanent cosmetics (like lips, eyebrows, eyeliner, eye shadow, post-mastectomy nipple, post-trauma injury camouflage, etc.), piercing, scarification, branding and implants. But it needn't be dangerous.

All body art carries risks that could lead to serious, lifelong diseases. At one end, you have disease and infection. At the other end, you might have an allergic reaction or your body might reject the ink or piercing. Choose a reputable artist and know how to care for your body art. It is never safe to go to an unlicensed body artist.

There are no federal or state regulations that govern body art businesses. In the late 1990s, the California Health and Safety Code required standards be developed for sterilization, sanitation and safety. A draft of the standards has yet to be adopted. Therefore, most counties do not inspect these businesses. In Contra Costa, people who want to practice body art must register with the Environmental Health Division of Contra Costa Health Services. You can find out if a body artist is registered by calling 925-692-2500.

You can—and should—do a quick and effective evaluation yourself. Find an artist who:
  • Practices in a clean and hygienic environment
  • Uses safe equipment and inks
  • Wears a fresh pair of disposable latex gloves
  • Uses single-use, disposable needles and razors
  • Safely disposes of needles and razors
  • Sterilizes reusable equipment
  • Washes hands and surfaces often

It's also a good idea to ask friends and family for references.

Body artists who take these precautions help protect themselves and their clients. Any time you break the skin, you risk infection. Unsanitary body art can lead to HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B or C, bacterial infections and, as mentioned before, allergic reactions. Check with your health care provider about any allergies or medications that could result in complications from getting a tattoo or piercing.

In addition to the risk of infection and allergic reaction, there is a growing concern regarding the toxicity of certain heavy metals and pigments associated with some dyes used in tattooing, including aluminum, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cobalt, lead, nickel, selenium and titanium.

If you're reading this as a parent, chances are you've worried about your child and body art. Lucky for you, it is illegal in California to tattoo a person younger than 18 years, except when a physician provides authorization. Similarly, it is illegal to pierce body parts of minors without written consent from a parent or guardian. An artist willing to neglect these laws is probably willing to neglect basic hygiene standards, as well.

When you've made the decision to have body art done and have found a reputable artist, ask for a care sheet so you can purchase necessary products before the procedure. Ongoing care, like monitoring and cleaning the site, is crucial to preventing disease and infection.

Contact your health care provider immediately if you think your body art is infected or not healing properly.

Mr. Hampton is an Environmental Health Specialist with Contra Costa Health Services.

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