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Tattoos and piercings: What to know beforehand
Special to CNN.com
A tattoo or piercing may take only a few minutes or hours to acquire, but invest plenty of thought and research before getting one. If you take steps to protect yourself from possible risks, what seems like a cool idea now is less likely to turn into a source of regret later.
Tattoos: Permanent body art
A tattoo is a permanent mark or design made on your skin with pigments inserted through pricks into the skin's top layer.
How is it done?
During the procedure, a needle that's connected to a small machine with tubes containing dye pierces the skin repeatedly — an action that resembles that of a sewing machine. With every puncture, the needle inserts tiny ink droplets. The process, which may last up to several hours for a large tattoo, causes a small amount of bleeding and minor to potentially significant pain.
What are the risks?
Tattooed artwork involves breaching one of your body's main protective barriers — the skin. This means you can be more susceptible to skin infections and other skin reactions. Specific risks include:
- Blood-borne diseases. If the equipment used to create your tattoo is contaminated with the blood of an infected person, you can contract a number of serious blood-borne diseases. These include hepatitis C, hepatitis B, tetanus, tuberculosis and HIV — the virus that causes AIDS.
- Skin disorders. Your body may form bumps called granulomas around tattoo ink, especially if your tattoo includes red ink. Tattooing can also cause areas of raised, excessive scarring (keloids), if you're prone to them.
- Skin infections. Tattoos can lead to local bacterial infections. Typical signs and symptoms of an infection include redness, warmth, swelling and a pus-like drainage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked clusters of potentially serious antibiotic-resistant skin infections to unlicensed tattoo artists who don't follow proper infection-control procedures. Some antibiotic-resistant skin infections can lead to pneumonia, bloodstream infections and a painful, flesh-destroying condition called necrotizing fasciitis.
- Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes, particularly red dye, can cause allergic skin reactions, resulting in an itchy rash at the tattoo site. This may occur even years after you get the tattoo.
- MRI complications. Rarely, tattoos or permanent makeup may cause swelling or burning in the affected areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams. In some cases — such as when a person with permanent eyeliner has an MRI of the eye — tattoo pigments may interfere with the quality of the image.
How you care for your new artwork depends on the type and extent of work done. Your tattoo artist should provide you with detailed instructions about how to care for the tattoo — such as cleaning the tattoo with soap and water, applying moisturizer regularly and avoiding sun exposure for at least the first few weeks.
Tattoos may take up to several days to heal. Don't pick at scabs, which increases the risk of infection and can damage the design and cause scarring.
A common problem with tattoos is dissatisfaction. Some tattoos fade. If the tattoo artist injects the color too deeply into your skin, the dye can drift — causing a blurred design. You may also decide that the tattoo no longer fits your current image or that the once-stylish design has become dated.
Tattoos are meant to be permanent, so their complete removal is difficult. Several removal techniques exist, but regardless of the method used, scarring and skin color variations are likely to remain. Methods include:
Body piercing: Jewelry for body adornment
- Laser surgery. This is the most effective way to reduce the appearance of a tattoo. Pulses of laser light pass through the top layer of skin and the energy of the light is absorbed by the pigment in the tattoo. This process creates a very low grade of inflammation and allows your body to process the small areas of altered pigment. You may require as many as 12 treatments over a year to lighten the tattoo, and the treatment might not completely erase it.
- Dermabrasion. The tattoo area is chilled until numb, and the skin that contains the tattoo is sanded down to deeper levels. This generally isn't painful, but it may leave a scar.
- Surgical removal. A doctor can surgically cut out the tattoo and stitch the edges back together, but this can leave a scar.
Body piercing is the insertion of jewelry into an opening made in the ear, nose, eyebrow, lip, tongue or other area of the body.
How is it done?
Body piercing is traditionally done without anesthesia to dull the pain. The practitioner pushes a hollow needle through a body part, then inserts a piece of jewelry into the hole. Some practitioners may use piercing guns, but these are difficult to sterilize and can more easily damage the skin.
What are the risks?
Anytime the skin is punctured, there is a risk of infection. Specific risks include:
- Blood-borne diseases. If the equipment used to do your piercing is contaminated with the blood of an infected person, you can contract a number of serious blood-borne diseases. These include hepatitis C, hepatitis B, tetanus, tuberculosis and HIV — the virus that causes AIDS.
- Allergic reactions. Some piercing jewelry is made of nickel or brass, which can cause allergic reactions.
- Oral complications. Jewelry worn in tongue piercings can chip and crack your teeth and damage your gums.
- Skin infections. Typical signs and symptoms of an infection include redness, swelling, pain and a pus-like discharge. Infections from piercings in the upper ear cartilage are especially serious. Antibiotics are often ineffective. Because cartilage doesn't have its own blood supply, the drug can't reach the infection site. Such infection can lead to cartilage damage and serious, permanent ear deformity.
- Scars and keloids. Body piercing can cause scars and keloids — ridged areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.
Follow-up care for your piercing depends on the body part pierced. If you have an oral piercing (tongue or lip), use an antibacterial, alcohol-free mouth rinse for 30 to 60 seconds after meals while your piercing heals. Use a new soft-bristled toothbrush after the piercing to avoid introducing bacteria into your mouth.
If you have a skin piercing (nose, ears, eyebrow, navel), rinse the site in warm water and use a cotton swab to gently remove any crusting. Then apply a dab of a liquid medicated cleanser to the area. Gently turn the jewelry back and forth to work the cleanser around the opening. Avoid alcohol and peroxide, which can dry the skin. Also avoid ointments, which keep oxygen from reaching the piercing and can leave a sticky residue.
Precautions to protect yourself
Piercings often heal over — sometimes quickly — once you remove the jewelry that keeps the hole open.
You can decrease the possibility of complications if you go to a reputable piercing or tattoo studio that employs only properly trained and licensed employees. Choose an establishment that's clean and tidy. Also look for and ask about the following:
- An autoclave. An autoclave is a heat sterilization machine that should be used to sterilize all nondisposable equipment after each customer. Instruments and supplies that can't be sterilized with an autoclave should be disinfected with a commercial disinfectant or bleach solution after each use. These include drawer handles, tables and sinks.
- Fresh equipment. An unused, sterile needle should be used for all piercings. If you're getting a tattoo, watch the tattoo artist and make sure he or she removes a needle and tubes from a sealed package before your procedure begins. Any pigments, trays and containers should be unused as well.
- Gloves. The piercer or tattoo artist must wash his or her hands and put on a fresh pair of latex gloves for each procedure. The piercer or tattoo artist should change those gloves if he or she needs to touch anything else, such as the telephone, during the procedure.
- No piercing gun. Don't receive a piercing from a piercing gun. These devices typically can't be autoclaved, which may increase your risk of infection. And such guns may crush your skin during the piercing, causing more injury.
- Appropriate hypoallergenic jewelry. Brass and nickel jewelry can cause allergic reactions. Look for surgical-grade steel, titanium, 14- or 18-karat gold, or a metal called niobium.
If you're considering a tattoo or piercing, understand the risks and research the process beforehand. Get your body art done correctly and use proper care afterward to reduce the risks.