Tattooing, as well as medicine, has made great strides in the past 10 years alone. I’ve heard many misconceptions about tattoo safety, and hope to clarify some information as well as to stress the importance of researching who is doing your tattoo! Tattooing is by all means a medical procedure, and should be approached as such.
Commonly, people are worried only that their artist is using a sterile needle. While this is absolutely necessary, it’s only one very small part of a system designed and proven to virtually eliminate the risk of transmitting disease. Unfortunately, there is very little protection for people who contract diseases from irresponsible tattooing. It can be very difficult to link the diagnosis of a blood-borne disease to a tattoo. You’re the first line of defense for your health. With some knowledge in blood borne pathogens and knowing what to look for, you can feel better about getting your next tattoo.
First and foremost, there are two main organisms we are fighting the transmission of. Aside from keeping the area clean of more common viruses and lowly bacteria, which is much easier to maintain, blood-borne pathogens and infectious bacteria are the ones responsible for life-threatening complications. A blood-borne pathogen is an infectious microorganism that can be transmitted through the blood stream. Infectious bacteria similarly needs an open wound to be transmitted, however it is localized and comparatively easier to treat, in most cases. The procedure for both organisms is the same, so when I’m talking about “blood-borne pathogens”, infectious bacteria is implied as well.
Moving on, the most basic start to tattoo safety, is understanding and preventing cross-contamination. Recall that blood-borne pathogens are transmitted through the blood; during the procedure, both the artist and client will be in contact with blood. Anything that touches the blood is considered bio-hazard at this point, and must be sterilized after the procedure. In short, this means that all equipment that will be used or touched, must be sterile prior to the application of your new tattoo. All re-usable equipment, such as lamps, armrests, etc, that may come into contact with blood or fluids, must be protected with a non-permeable barrier such as plastic wrap or medical barrier film. In addition to this layer of protection, all equipment must be properly sterilized after every tattoo. Some of our equipment is single use, and come in sterilized packs, however items such as the machines must be sterilized and re-used. This sterilization process varies by equipment, but generally consists of using a medical grade disinfectant, and in some cases, the use of an Autoclave. An Autoclave is essentially a glorified pressure cooker; it uses steam to kill virtually every known organism on equipment. It is important for the practitioner to stay aware of contamination at all times, INCLUDING any unintentional contamination on the clients part! It is somewhat common to see your client touch their tattoo, and proceed to touch a door knob, sink, etc…the artist must pay attention to this, and sterilize as quickly as possible! If they fail to do so, and a client leans up against a contaminates a wall for example, the next person getting a tattoo might rub up against that same spot, and contract a disease. As a client it is good to know what not to do, but at the end of the day it is part of your artists job to keep you safe and educated! If your artist isn’t paying attention to safety, it really can be that easy to contract a disease. Feel free to ask your artist any health related questions, they should be able and willing to answer all of your questions.
I still get asked from time to time if I use sterile needles for each client, the answer is YES ABSOLUTELY! Using sterile, single use needles is non-negotiable. There is no excuse to EVER re-use a needle. Especially when you consider that the needle is one of, if not THE cheapest pieces of equipment we use! No trained artist will ever re-use a needle, but using sterile needles is only scratching the surface of tattoo safety and disease prevention.
There is so much that goes into tattoo safety and preventing the transmission of disease, it is not always feasible for the clients to be able to discern between safe and unsafe practices. This is where it becomes very important to do your research on an artist, and to make sure you trust them BEFORE starting the tattoo process! However, some good signs to look for are that they are constantly changing gloves, they keep all the equipment covered and clean, and that the shop itself is a model of cleanliness. These 3 things generally translate into a good understanding of tattoo safety.