Getting Inked? Your Guide to Tattoo Safety

US News

Popeye flexes an anchor on each forearm. Mike Tyson sports tribal markings on his face. Johnny Depp labels himself a wino on his bicep, after his never-ending love for Winona Ryder, well, ended. It may not seem odd to see tattoos on cartoon characters and celebrities, or inked onto our favorite tattooed clichés--the biker, the thug, the hipster. But look around you. One in five U.S. adults (read: "regular" people) has a tattoo, according to a February 2012 Harris poll. If that number is surprising, consider another study, this one by Pew Research in 2010, which specifically looked at Millennials. Although nearly four in 10 Millennials sport a tattoo, 70 percent say their ink is hidden beneath clothing. So every fifth co-worker may be hiding a little something beneath his blazer.

If you've ever itched for ink--to wear a permanent mark of love or nostalgia or Dave Matthews Band lyrics--we've set you up with a guide to make sure it happens healthfully.

First, figure out if this is really something you want to do. "You should feel so strongly about [a tattoo] that you're restless without it," says Scott Campbell, a Brooklyn-based tattoo artist who's inked folks like Penelope Cruz, Josh Hartnett, and Orlando Bloom. "If you have to make the decision of 'should I, or shouldn't I'--you shouldn't."

[See Why Some of Us Are Thrill-Seekers.]

Feel in your heart and unsullied skin that you need a tattoo? Then don't go to just any tattoo artist. If you see someone with a tattoo you like, ask which artist gave it to her, Campbell says. Or search online for nearby tattoo studios and dig deep into the artists' portfolios.

Once you've picked out an artist, head to his studio and make sure you feel comfortable there. "People should expect that they're treated respectfully and with interest by the people at the tattoo studio," says Pat Fish, a veteran tattoo artist at the LuckyFish studio in Santa Barbara, Calif. Don't let them be rude or dismissive, and "if you get any sort of negative vibe at all, walk away."

Another reason to walk away? A messy studio. Fish points out that, to some people, getting a tattoo seems "transgressive or naughty," so maybe a grungy biker bar-type studio seems appropriate. It's not.

Remember that tattoos involve needles and blood, and ink that can, in rare cases, be contaminated. A 2012 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report told the tales of 19 people who were tattooed with contaminated ink. Most landed with nasty nontuberculous mycobacterial (NTM) skin infections, which can range from a rash to severe abscesses that require surgery. In these cases, the ink became contaminated in production, before it even reached the tattoo studio. And although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies ink as a cosmetic, and doesn't explicitly require it to be sterile, the CDC is pushing ink manufacturers for higher safety standards. Keep these risks in mind while getting tattooed, the CDC report suggests. Check with the artist that the ink hasn't been recalled, and "ensure that tattoo artists follow appropriate medical practices" to avoid cross-contamination,

As for what appropriate medical practices look like? "[The studio] can't be like a surgical suite, but it should be as clean as your dentist's office," says Fish, adding that, preferably, all equipment is brand new, single-use, and disposable. Campbell agrees, explaining that you should be able to see for yourself that nothing has been reused. "They'll usually open everything in front of you, including all the tubes, and each needle," he says.

The artist should be wearing gloves, too. And whenever he grabs his cell phone, runs his hands through his hair, or touches anything, he needs to remove his gloves, throw them away, and replace them with a fresh pair, Fish says.

[See Top Recommended Hand Sanitizers.]

In addition to cleanliness, which ought to be a major focus while getting a tattoo, there are typically a few other things to worry about, too. What the heck is this going to look like? How much will it hurt? Well, the first question shouldn't be a concern if you've come to the studio with at least a starting point of what you want to get permanently inked on your body; the artist can work with you to complete the idea and sketch it. He'll trace an outline onto your skin, so you see the exact size of the tattoo and how it'll appear on your body. Then it's all about trusting that the artist can perform, which shouldn't be too hard if you've reviewed his portfolio and you communicate well with each other.

Next comes the needle, which Campbell insists isn't so painful at all. "If it were that terrible, you would never see anyone with more than one tattoo," he says. In fact, the Pew study found that only 31 percent of inked Millennials have just one tattoo, while half of them have two to five, and 18 percent have six or more. Campbell points out that there are parts of the body that may be more sensitive, like the rib cage, but, "The range of how sensitive it is is not so dramatic that it should affect your decision on where to get [the tattoo]."

You shouldn't be in too severe of pain when you leave the studio, which is also when the artist will give you a rundown of how to take care of your tattoo to prevent infection. While just about every artist gives a slightly different spiel on tattoo maintenance, "The most important thing is keeping it clean," says Campbell. "Treat it like any cut or scrape or wound." Fish adds that you should "leave the studio in a sterile, nonstick bandage."

[See Top Recommended Adhesive Bandages.]

After all, you don't want to spread your bloody germs when you go out for celebratory drink. Cheers for the one in five!

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