Are Medical and Cosmetic Tattooing Procedures Safe?
Updated: Mar 21
The answer, in a nutshell, is "yes," but there are a few things to think about.
This is the one question that is asked before any other questions when anyone looks at getting any sort of tattoo procedures done and it is also the most important. We have all seen tattoos in one form or another. Whether it's an image of a rose on someone's arms or shoulders, or microbladed eyebrows - tattoos are common and, chances are, you know someone that has one and have seen it in person and up close.
Before we look at why it is safe, let's look at what the overall tattoo process is. First, we should understand the process of tattooing. Briefly, tattoo needles create multiple puncture wounds into the upper layers of our skin (the dermis). The tattoo pigment on the needles is carried into the epidermis and dermis by repetitive motions through the tattoo machine. This process creates multiple punctures and deposits the ink into those punctures.
With any type of injury, our body will quickly tell us that it's damaged by having inflammation (the redness you see) and swelling. It's a natural reaction and it's there to make sure you know that your body doesn't like it.
Generally, the tattooed areas typically require about a week to heal and, within two to three weeks, the crisp appearance of a fresh tattoo subsides and new skin is healed and fully formed.
Tattooing does carry a very low risk of infection and tattoo pigment reaction. The latter may occur from days to decades after tattooing. I'm sure you've seen many photos on social media of someone having a bad reaction from their microbladed brows, or you've heard and read horror stories about someone with puss coming out of their arms from a tattoo. The honest truth is that it's extremely, extremely rare. How often do you hear about a successful tattoo procedure being done correctly with the client being super happy? How often do you hear about someone with a bad reaction to tattooing? Good news is seldom spread, but bad news travels fast.
Tattoo pigment and numbing cream allergic reactions are the most extreme. When you see those ghastly images, it's either one or the other. The problem with allergic reactions from tattoo pigment or numbing creams is that it can take anywhere from a few days, to several months before you start having a bad reaction. Because it is harder to detect and longer in time frame, many people don't notice problems until much later. It also feels much worse since the pigment is already absorbed and into your skin. As bad as that may sound, these types of allergic reactions are extremely rare.
The Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals (SPCP) is a non-profit international professional association owned, operated, and controlled by its members. It's the largest and most reputable organization (which I am a member of) that upholds codes of ethic, continuing education and certification and ongoing support for members and public awareness of permanent cosmetic and medical tattooing procedures. Every 3 years, the SPCP publishes the Vision Industry Profile Study. It is a hard look with insights on every practitioner, their background, training and knowledge, average costs, and most importantly, any medical issues or reactions resulting from those procedures. All of it is free and you can view it on the SPCP website here: SPCP Industry Study
The last study published is the 2015 report, which shows that 87.2% of all practitioners had no tattoo pigment allergic reactions. 8.3% reported only one incident, 2.8% reported two incidents, 0.9% reported three or more incidents. The results are almost identical for topical anesthetics (such as numbing creams). Do keep in mind that these reports span 3 years so let that sink in a little bit. My point is that tattooing in general runs an extremely low risk of having any sort of infection. Most tattoo pigments and numbing creams, if purchased from reliable sources, pose very little risks. And, these are the ones that have the most extreme cases, so let's look at the more common problems that people do face.
Let's talk about more common reactions to having medical and cosmetic tattoos and how you know if it's normal or whether you have an excessive reaction and what can be done when it happens to you.
Swelling is the most common side effect, but that is completely normal whether or not you get a tattoo, whether you're burned, got stung by a bee or even punched in the face. As mentioned before, it's our natural reaction when the body feels pain or damage. Some people have more sensitive skin and the swelling may last a little longer than others. An ice pack and a few extra hours usually have the swelling subside. There are extreme cases, especially in more sensitive areas such as the eyes or lips, where the swelling can be more extreme. If it lasts more than a day or two, the best option is to see your physician and get some antibiotics. Again, that is very rare, but it's also the extent of swelling you may get.
It is very rare, but not uncommon to have bruising in some areas after getting a tattoo. Skin and tissue is unpredictable and very different from person to person. Bruising causes no extra pain and usually does not last for more than a few days. Some people do bruise more easily than others and you usually would already know if you're one of them. Excessive bruising becomes overly dark and lasts for more than several weeks. While it causes no medical issues, it's more of an annoyance and you'll have to come up with ideas on how to explain the bruising.
Hyperpigmentation occurs when your body produces more pigment than is needed for the new skin after an injury. If you've ever had a cut or burn, the center is almost always lighter than the edges around the cut. Hyperpigmentation is more common with people with darker skin tones and it is very normal. The darker tones usually fade and return to its normal color within 3-4 weeks. Individuals with more excessive hyperpigmentation can take up to several months before the darker areas lighten up and in some extreme cases, even years.
4) Excessive Bleeding
Micropigmentation is a little different than traditional tattoos in that it typically does not go as deep into the skin as normal tattoos do. As a result, there should be little to no bleeding if done correctly. However, every client is a little different and some bleeding is normal. After all, small needle pokes will yield some blood, but it should be no more than a cut when you shave and nick yourself. The blood, once clotted, should stop bleeding within a few minutes. It is abnormal to have blood for anything longer than that, and, it's a usual sign of something more and you should have yourself checked for immune issues.
Tattoos are generally safe and apart from the many skin irritations discussed above, there are seldom other issues. You are more likely to see bad work performed than you do with skin irritation and reaction. That's why choosing the right artist and practitioner is so important. You can read my article on that matter here: How to Choose a Good Provider
To summarize, getting a medical or cosmetic tattoo isn't as painful as most people scare themselves into. It's also no different than getting a small cut or scratch. Most people heal up while others may have some swelling or rash before subsiding. It's to be expected and if something worse happens, there are antibiotics and other skin treatments to tame it. Don't let the fear of the unknown hinder your well-being. There is a reason why medical tattooing is one, if not the fastest, growing industries right now. It's more accepted in recent years and the work is generally undetectable if done correctly. We used to think that 65 years old is old, but not anymore. As we live longer and more healthier, we all want to look better and feel younger.