KidsHealth
TeensHealth.org

A safe, private place to get
doctor-approved information
on health, emotions, and life.


Tattoos

What Is a Tattoo?

A tattoo is a permanent kind of body art. A design is made by puncturing the skin with needles and injecting ink, dyes, and pigments into the deep layer of the skin. 

Tattoos used to be done manually — that is, the tattoo artist would puncture the skin with a needle and inject the ink by hand. Though this process is still used in some parts of the world, professional tattoo artists use tattoo machines. A tattoo machine powers the needles up and down as ink is deposited in the skin.

What if I Want a Tattoo?

If you're thinking about getting a tattoo, you should understand that tattoos are permanent. Tattoo removal is difficult, expensive, and may not be completely remove the tattoo.

Before getting a tattoo, make sure you have had all your immunizations (especially hepatitis B and tetanus shots). If you have a medical problem such as heart disease, allergies, diabetes, skin problems like eczema or psoriasis, a weakened immune system, or a bleeding problem, talk to your doctor before getting a tattoo. Also, if you get keloids (an overgrowth of scar tissue) you should probably not get a tattoo.

Even though tattoos are generally accepted, having one may hurt your chances of getting a job or advancing your career. If you get a tattoo, career coaches recommend you get one that's easy to cover with work clothes.

What Else Should I Know?

It's very important to protect yourself against infection if you decide to get a tattoo. Make sure the tattoo studio is clean and safe, and that all equipment used is disposable (in the case of needles, ink, gloves) and sterilized (everything else). Call your state, county, or local health department to find out about your state's laws on tattooing, ask for recommendations on licensed tattoo shops, or check for any complaints about a particular studio.

Most states don't allow minors (people younger than 18 years) to get a tattoo without a parent's permission, and some require that a parent be present during the tattooing. In some states, minors are not allowed to get tattoos.

Professional studios usually take pride in their cleanliness. Here are some things to ask about:

  • Does the tattoo studio use single-use needles and sterilize all equipment using an autoclave (a device that uses steam, pressure, and heat for sterilization)? You should see needles and other equipment removed from sealed, sterile containers.
  • Do they use one-time ink cartridges that are disposed of after each customer?
  • Is the tattoo artist is a licensed practitioner? The tattoo artist should be able to provide you with references.
  • Does the tattoo studio follows universal precautions? These are procedures to follow when dealing with blood and other body fluids to help prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis B, and other serious blood infections.

If the studio looks unclean, if anything looks out of the ordinary, or if you feel in any way uncomfortable, find a better place to get your tattoo.

What's the Procedure Like?

Here's what you can expect from a normal tattooing procedure:

  • The tattoo artist should wash his or her hands with antibacterial soap and water and wear clean, fresh gloves (and possibly a surgical mask).
  • The to-be-tattooed area on your body is washed with soap and shaved, if necessary. The artist will draw or stencil the design on your skin.
  • The area is cleaned again with alcohol or an antiseptic. A thin layer of ointment such as petroleum jelly is applied.
  • Using a tattoo machine with sterile needles attached, the tattoo artist will begin drawing an outline of the tattoo. The artist may change needles, depending on the design and desired effect. All needles should be single-use or sterilized.
  • Any blood or fluid is wiped away with a sterile, disposable gauze or cloth.
  • When finished, the area, now sporting a finished tattoo, is cleaned once again and a bandage applied.

Does It Hurt to Get a Tattoo?

Getting a tattoo hurts, but the level of pain can vary. It can feel like scratching, burning, stinging, or tingling. Some people feel sharp pains while others may describe the feeling as dull. The amount of pain you feel will depend on your pain threshold and other factors, including where on your body you're getting the tattoo, the size and number of needles being used, and the artist's style (some are quick and some work more slowly, some are more gentle than others).

 

Taking Care of a Tattoo

Follow all of the instructions the studio gives you for caring for your tattoo. To make sure it heals properly:

  • Keep a bandage on the area for 24 hours.
  • After 24 hours, remove the bandage and keep the tattoo open to air.
  • Avoid touching the tattooed area and don't pick at any scabs that may form.
  • Avoid clothes that might stick to the healing tattoo.
  • Wash the tattoo with soap and warm water (don't use alcohol or peroxide). Use a soft towel to dry the tattoo — just pat it dry and be sure not to rub it.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment, thick skin cream, or vitamin E oil to the tattoo 2 to 3 times a day for a week. Don't use petroleum jelly.
  • Do not let the tattoo soak in water. Showers are fine but avoid swimming and baths until the tattoo is fully healed.
  • Keep your tattoo out of the sun until it's fully healed.

Tattoos usually take about 2 weeks to heal. Even after it's fully healed, wear a sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30. This not only protects your skin, but can help keep the tattoo from fading.

What Are the Risks?

If you decide to get a tattoo, chances are everything will go as planned. Some people have allergic reactions to the tattoo ink, causing itching, bumps, and rashes that might happen days, weeks, or longer after the tattoo was placed. Tattoos might make eczema, psoriasis, or other skin conditions flare up.

Serious problems can happen if you try to do a tattoo yourself, have a friend do it for you, or have it done in any unclean environment. Skin infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi can happen if the skin is not cleaned properly, or the ink or needles are contaminated. Sharing needles, ink, or other equipment without sterilization increases your chance of getting HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C.

Call your doctor right away if you have bleeding, increased pain, or any signs of infection.

Tattoo Removal

A lot of people love their tattoos and keep them forever. But others decide a couple of years down the road that they really don't want that snake on their arm or their ex's name on their chest. What then?

Laser treatment is the best option for tattoo removal. The laser sends short zaps of light through the top layers of your skin, with the laser's energy aimed at specific pigments in the tattoo. Those zapped pigments are then removed by the scavenger cells of your body's immune system.

Other less common ways to remove tattoos include dermabrasion, chemical peels, and surgery.

Although it's called tattoo removal, completely removing a tattoo can be difficult depending on your skin type, how big and complex the design is, and the types and colors of inks that were used. It can take several treatments over months, and results are not guaranteed. Treatment can cause darkening or lightening of the skin, and scarring. It also can be expensive. It's best to consult with a dermatologist who specializes in tattoo removal to get your questions answered.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: December 2017

Note: All information on TeensHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995- The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.

Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com