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Think before you ink

As the popularity of tattoos grows, so does concern about safety

By Lizzie Johnson

Dallas Morning News

LAST UPDATED: 01:51 a.m. HST, Jun 10, 2014

DALLAS » Thirteen needles are simultaneously zinging in and out of Adam Metzger's shoulder.

The 27-year-old is unruffled. He stares unblinkingly out the storefront window of Taboo Tattoo, a studio in the Bishop Arts District. To his right, Cody Biggs shades blue into a square of the Texas state flag. His movements are sure, even.

The buzzing suddenly falls silent. Biggs pauses to dunk the handpiece into a thimble-size plastic cup of ink, then turns back to his canvas. Metzger's shoulder is pink and puffy, weeping streams of ink and blood.

"How are you doing, buddy?" Biggs asks, rubbing on ointment in counterclockwise circles.

"It doesn't feel good, man," Metzger responds, "but I've definitely felt worse pain."

Plenty of people know what he's been through. As of 2012, 1 in 5 adults had a tattoo, up from 14 percent in 2008, a Harris Interactive Poll found. And when safety standards are followed, tattoos are usually trouble-free.

But tattoos can pose health risks that many people might not consider:

Unsterilized tools or contaminated ink can lead to infection, scarring, blood-borne diseases and other, less obvious issues.

"A tattoo is like a minor surgery," says Dr. Bryan Wasson, an internal medicine physician at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center at Irving, Texas. "You clean and shave the skin like you're going to operate. You use surgical tools. There are dangers. So be careful in your selection."

During the procedure, a gun with needles punctures the top layer of the skin, depositing pigment in a deeper layer called the dermis. As the skin heals, the ink remains trapped below the surface.

"When you get a tattoo, you bleed," said Dr. Donna Casey, an internal medical specialist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. "Because you are bleeding, anything in contact with the tattoo — bacteria, viruses — can get into the wound and your entire body. It's like having a bite on your leg or a gigantic abrasion."

Contaminated inks were the cause of an outbreak of serious infections in four states in late 2011 and early 2012. These infections were caused by a type of fast-growing bacteria that caused red, itchy bumps to severe sores requiring surgery. The 22 cases were associated with inks contaminated before distribution or just before tattooing.

(Last week San Diego County health officials reported that two area residents who recently got tattoos were treated for infections. The bacteria responsible for the infections was found in contaminated tattoo ink and in the water used to dilute ink to make gray, they said. Symptoms included itchy red bumps that turned to abscesses. Officials said it will take antibiotics and six months to treat the infections, and scarring may still result.)

Ingredients in tattoo ink vary, but they can contain metals, powders or other organic compounds in a liquid base. Problems can range from allergic reactions to scarring and the formation of bumpy knots called granulomas, more common in people with darker skin. The long-term effects of ink are still unknown.

"We know that the ink will gain access to your bloodstream," Wasson says. "I had a young gentleman come in, and he had a lymph node under his arm that was swollen. When we biopsied it, we found ink from his tattoo. We don't really know what happens internally."

In rare cases, inks containing metallic pigments can cause swelling during magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs.

"Tattoos are not an absolute contraindication for an MRI study," says Dr. Dai­hung Do, faculty director of dermatologic surgery at Harvard Medical School and director of dermatologic surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "Patients should notify their radiologist that they have a decorative or permanent tattoo so that the appropriate precautions can be taken."

Tattoos can also prevent the early detection of skin cancer, says Peter Beitsch, a surgeon specializing in melanoma at Medical City Dallas Hospital. The ink can camouflage changes in asymmetry, borders, color and diameter, the "ABCDs" of melanoma detection. This is important for fair-skinned or redheaded people, who already have a higher risk of developing skin cancers.

"Sometimes when you cover up moles, the ink from the tattoo will mask changes in the mole," he says. "It's not common. But if you cover up enough moles, some of them are going to turn bad, into a lethal kind of skin cancer."

Beitsch refers to the case of a 35-year-old man who got a large tattoo on his shoulder in honor of a brother who had died of leukemia. The tattoo masked changes in a mole that was beneath it. The man died of melanoma.

"It's tragic," Beitsch says. "About half of melanoma starts in pre-existing moles. Be aware that if you cover up a mole, you need to be paying attention to it."

THE FOOD and Drug Administration regulates tattoo ink but considers it a cosmetic and intervenes only when problems arise. The agency has not actually approved any tattoo ink, and there is no specific requirement that explicitly says tattoo inks must be sterile.

"Tattoo inks are not highly regulated," Do says. "Many of the pigments are industrial grade, and none are currently FDA-approved. Although tattooing has been practiced for thousands of years, there are few studies regarding their safety."

Theresa Eisenman, a spokes­woman for the FDA, said this is because no sponsor has signed the required petition and provided the data needed to determine whether a dye is safe for tattooing.

The easiest — and most important — way to avoid becoming a tattoo horror story is to research the tattoo parlor and review personal health history ahead of time.

"Like anything, like ear piercings, you can develop other medical problems if it isn't at a clean place," Do says. "It all depends on who does your tattoo and whether they are cleaning their instruments in a safe manner. If you go to the wrong place, it could be very easy to contract something."

Medical experts also do not recommend tattoos for people with a history of allergies, diabetes, heart disease, skin disorders, immune system conditions, a history of infections or who are pregnant. For those with a family history of skin cancers, avoid areas that would cover moles.

"Do your research," Metz­ger says. He stands in front of a mirror, examining the newly finished art on his arm.

"There are certain things everyone should check for," he says. "Find a place and an artist you like. If you don't get a good vibe, maybe that shop is not the shop for you. Something I always look for is an autoclave machine. Disposables are OK, too. I want them to wear gloves; I want to hear that snap. If you are unsure about any part of the proc­ess, don't do it."

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Grimbold wrote:
Funny that the besmirching of ones body - which originated as felons' and sailors' habit is so popular. Making some people look like walking graffiti boards.
on June 10,2014 | 04:37AM
inHilo wrote:
You may want to check the history of tattooing before you besmirch sailors.
on June 10,2014 | 06:18AM
bekwell wrote:
I used to pay a quarter to see the tattooed lady at the circus freak show. Now I can go to the beach and see them for free.
on June 10,2014 | 04:38AM
thos wrote:
What so many young women do not seem to realize is that their precious tattoo makes them look necrotic as though they had some terminal, rotting disease like gangrene.

Not only that, but ink is not regulated or controlled and there is no telling what is being injected other than ink.

All in all, an intelligence test: those with tattoos have flunked.
on June 10,2014 | 06:38AM
soundofreason wrote:
Getting a tattoo doesn't pass the "What would Bill Gates do" test.
on June 10,2014 | 07:02AM
Bdpapa wrote:
Until, they can develop a safe removal process, I would recommend avoiding this. Personally, I wouldn't hire anyone with visible tattoos.
on June 10,2014 | 06:54AM
leino wrote:
The most intriguing part of a tattoo is the ink you do not get see.
on June 10,2014 | 07:48AM
cojef wrote:
You mean in strange areas of the body. Why not display that tattoo too?? no pun intended, bah.
on June 10,2014 | 08:31AM
saveparadise wrote:
Why not focus on the beauty that lies within? Beauty that is only skin deep is meaningless. Need attention that much? Get a dog.
on June 10,2014 | 11:01AM
pj737 wrote:
Tattoos are great. Before I'd have to engage with people and talk to them to ascertain their intelligence. Now their intelligence quotient is plastered all over their bodies visible for all to see.
on June 10,2014 | 11:38AM
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