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Tattoos are a popular form of body modification. They are created by injecting ink under the skin, and while they can look beautiful, foreign material is being introduced into the body, increasing the risk of an infection or allergic reaction.
Skin Reactions to Tattoos
The process of getting tattooed is irritating to the skin as it is being punctured hundreds of times by a needle, which deposits ink into the top layer of the dermis in its wake. Acute inflammatory reaction is an expected side effect of the tattoo process. The area of the skin in and around the tattoo becomes red and puffy, but that reaction goes away after two to three weeks.
Allergic Reactions to Tattoos
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Tattoo pigment is the main culprit for triggering an allergic reaction. Red pigment is the most common pigment associated with allergic reactions 2. There are two types of allergic reactions associated with tattoos: One is allergic contact dermatitis and the other is photoallergic dermatitis 2. The reactions can appear as an inflamed red rash, and the skin can sometimes become scaly and flaky. Allergic reactions can happen right after the tattoo is finished, or years later.
- Tattoo pigment is the main culprit for triggering an allergic reaction.
- Allergic reactions can happen right after the tattoo is finished, or years later.
Treating Allergic Reactions to Tattoos
Most reactions to tattoos are relatively minor and do not require medical attention. Applications of aloe vera or specialty products made for tattoos can help relieve the discomfort of the reaction. Rarely, severe reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, can occur at the time the tattoo is being applied; in those cases, treatment should be administered immediately by a medical professional.
People Who Should Avoid Getting a Tattoo
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Getting a tattoo can be a great way to express individuality, but there are some people who should be cautious about getting a tattoo or should avoid getting one entirely. It is important for anyone who is considering getting a tattoo to know what they are going to get. People with sensitive skin or allergies to some metals need to know what is in the tattoo inks the artist will be using. Anyone who has a history of severe allergic reactions to metals or any other ingredient that may be contained in tattoo ink should avoid getting a tattoo, or should find an artist who uses hypoallergenic pigments.
- Getting a tattoo can be a great way to express individuality, but there are some people who should be cautious about getting a tattoo or should avoid getting one entirely.
- People with sensitive skin or allergies to some metals need to know what is in the tattoo inks the artist will be using.
Lowering the Risk of Allergic Reactions
When the tattoo is finished, it is critical that the aftercare instructions are carefully followed. When the tattoo artist completes the tattoo, he will wash the area with a solution of witch hazel before applying a bandage. After several hours the bandage can be removed. The tattoo should be washed thoroughly with warm water and soap, and dried. Then ointment needs to be applied to help with the healing process. Making sure that the tattoo remains clean and kept moist will help it heal cleanly and reduces the risk of an allergic reaction.
- When the tattoo is finished, it is critical that the aftercare instructions are carefully followed.
Allergies Not Related to Ink
During the healing time after a tattoo, some people experience what seems like could be a reaction to the ink in the tattoo. Sometimes the reaction is related to the aftercare ointments, soaps or lotions being used. Anyone experiencing issues with their tattoo as it is healing should contact their artist who may have suggestions to help ease discomfort. A dermatologist should be consulted if the reaction doesn’t go away or gets worse.
- During the healing time after a tattoo, some people experience what seems like could be a reaction to the ink in the tattoo.
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- Mayo Clinic: Adult Health - Tattoos: Understand the risks and precautions
- DermNet NZ - Tattoo - associated skin reactions
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV transmission. Updated August 6, 2019.
- Warshaw EM, Schlarbaum JP, Taylor JS, et al. Allergic reactions to tattoos: Retrospective analysis of North American Contact Dermatitis Group data, 2001-2016. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;2:e61-e62. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2019.09.077
- Kirby W, Alston DB, Chen AH. The incidence of hypertrophic scarring and keloid formation following laser tattoo removal with a quality-switched Nd:YAG laser. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2016;9(5):43–47.
- Islam PS, Chang C, Selmi C, et al. Medical complications of tattoos: A comprehensive review. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2016;50(2):273-86. doi:10.1007/s12016-016-8532-0
- Valbuena MC, Franco VE, Sánchez L, Jiménez HD. Sarcoidal granulomatous reaction due to tattoos: report of two cases. An Bras Dermatol. 2017;92(5 Suppl 1):138–141. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175860
- Orzan OA, Popa LG, Vexler ES, Olaru I, Voiculescu VM, Bumbăcea RS. Tattoo-induced psoriasis. J Med Life. 2014;7 Spec No. 2(Spec Iss 2):65–68.
- Ross JR, Matava MJ. Tattoo-induced skin "burn" during magnetic resonance imaging in a professional football player: a case report. Sports Health. 2011;3(5):431–434. doi:10.1177/1941738111411698
- Kaur RR, Kirby W, Maibach H. Cutaneous allergic reactions to tattoo ink. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2009;8:295-300. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2009.00469.x
- Brady BG, Gold H, Leger EA, Leger MC. Self-reported adverse tattoo reactions: a New York City Central Park study. Contact Dermatitis. 2015 Aug;73:91-99. doi:10.1111/cod.12425
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- United States Food and Drug Administration. Tattoos & permanent makeup; fact sheet. Oct 31, 2019.
Sabrina Ehlert has been a writer and blogger for more than five years. She has been published in Longmont's Daily Times-Call on a number of occasions.