Tattooing, which is traditional and sacred in many tribal cultures of the world, and which for a time was banned for a time and for a long time after that frowned upon by western societies as a sign of decadent behavior that is fit only for criminals and convicts, is now widely accepted worldwide among the different age groups. No doubt influenced by tattoo-sporting celebrities, a growing number of teens and young adults are tattooing their bodies as a form of art and self-expression. The old, meanwhile, have also resorted to tattooing to “enhance” their body appearance, as in tattoos to replace eyebrows, and to define the eyes and lips for example.
Tattooing involves the use of handheld devices that may be as crude as an ordinary needle or as sophisticated as hi-tech tattooing machines that punctures the skin hundreds of times per minute with a very fine needle, and pushing an indelible pigment about an eighth-inch deep into the skin. The procedure is usually performed without anesthesia, the pain of the procedure is bearable to most people and some actually relish it. But is tattooing safe?
The practice definitely carries some health risks.
As with any procedure that involves puncturing the skin, tattooing carries a risk for certain infectious diseases. High on the list are hepatitis B & C, syphilis and all sorts of bacterial and viral infections of the skin including abscesses, impetigo, erysipelas and warts. Fortunately, to date, there has been no report of the AIDS virus being transmitted through tattooing. The infections that are acquired through tattooing are largely due to poor aseptic techniques. When performed by properly-trained personnel, the risk for infection and other adverse effects are low. Other possible short-term adverse effects of tattooing include pain, bleeding, hematomas and allergic reaction to the pigments used.
Long-term adverse effects of tattoos include cyst formation and scar formation, which among “keloid-formers” maybe disfiguring.Tattoos may also have other long term adverse effects that are presently unknown because the pigments that are used for today’s tattoos consist of a variety of metallic salts and organic dyes whose long term effects on health are unknown. Many of these pigments are not even approved as ingredients for skin cosmetics and some were originally intended for use in writing and printer inks, as well as automobile paints. Also, the metal particles in some tattoos may cause severe burning pain during medical resonance imaging (MRI) tests.
Tattoos are difficult to remove. Removing a tattoo is often more painful than acquiring one. The most effective way of removing tattoos is by laser surgery—a very expensive procedure, to say the least. Furthermore, tattoo removal can lead to scar formation and/or a lighter skin where the tattoo used to be.
By the way, some of the pigments used for tattoos may break down into toxic chemicals when removed with laser and may unduly burden, if not damage, the liver and/or kidneys.
People, like your son, who are considering having themselves tattooed, should do a lot of thinking before they submit to the procedure. Often, years after they have been made, tattoos are no longer a source of joy for those who bear them. They serve more as ever-present reminders of one’s foolhardiness. Besides, tattoos do not simply pose health risks they could also be hazards to one’s career. Many employers refrain from hiring tattooed people.
By EDUARDO GONZALES, MD