Keeping Your Skin Healthy with TATTOOS

Elizabeth Cassinelli

Tattoos have been around since the Neolithic times and have been used by different cultures for different purposes. The earliest evidence of tattoos was found on the famous 5,000-year-old “Iceman,” who had 61 different tattoos. Tattoos also have been found on Egyptian mummies, the mummified remains of pre-Incan Chibayan farmer bodies, and the Greeks and Romans, who used them to mark their slaves and criminals. Depending on the culture, tattoos were used as amulets and talismans, marks of fertility, a warrior’s prowess, and a person’s status. In today’s world, many people use tattoos as a creative way to adorn their bodies, mark a significant event, bring good luck, and more. While tattoos can be extremely beautiful and individual to their wearers, there are some things to consider if you are thinking of getting one. Elizabeth Cassinelli, M.D., from the Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute in the Reno-Tahoe area, shares insights on risks, safety, and caring for your tattoos.

What are the risks of getting a tattoo?

Choosing to get a tattoo is a very personal decision. Due to its permanent nature, the decision to get a tattoo should not be made lightly. The design, its placement, and the artist and tattoo establishment you select are all essential to ensure you end up with precisely what you had in mind. And since the method of getting a tattoo actually breaks your skin, being aware of the risks involved should be a part of your decision-making process. Let’s take a look at some of those:

Allergic reaction – This is the most common concern and is usually caused by a response to the tattoo dye. Inks are generally safe; however, some people can develop allergic reactions to them. Red ink is the most common allergen, but it is possible to be allergic to other colors as well.

Skin infection – Infections can occur either from unhygienic practices and equipment or from an ink contaminated with bacteria or mold. This can occur from using non-sterile water to dilute the ink pigment, but the bottle may already come contaminated. The FDA issued a safety advisory in May 2019 warning about this issue.

Scar tissue – Some people may develop scar tissue after getting tattoos, or they develop granulomas (small knots or bumps) around material that the body considers foreign.

Triggering of a skin condition – Tattoos cause trauma to the skin and can trigger certain skin conditions if the person has a history of or genetic predisposition for them. Some examples of such conditions include psoriasis, eczema, keloids, vitiligo, and sarcoidosis. If you already know you have one of these skin conditions, check with your board-certified dermatologist before getting a tattoo.

Bloodborne diseases – If the equipment used to create your tattoo has been contaminated with infected blood from a previous customer and not sterilized adequately, you can contract a bloodborne disease such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

MRI complications – There have been reports of “MRI burns,” in which a burn occurs on tattooed skin during an MRI. This is rare and most often mild. Let your MRI technician know you have a tattoo before your procedure and watch out for burning or stinging during the MRI.

What safety measures do you recommend taking when getting a tattoo?

Rule No. 1 is to make sure you visit a licensed tattoo artist and parlor. Keep in mind that regulation and licensing requirements differ by state. If you have questions, contact your city, county, or state licensing agency or health department.

Ask lots of questions. Here are some examples of what you should be asking:

  1. How are the instruments sterilized? All non-disposable equipment should be sterilized between customers, usually using an autoclave (a machine that sterilizes materials by heating them at high temperatures for a specified amount of time).
  2. Are all other surfaces disinfected after each use? Tables, sinks, and handles should be disinfected with a commercial disinfectant or a bleach solution.
  3. What are the tattoo shop’s hygiene practices? Besides disinfecting surfaces, does the tattoo artist wear gloves, do they wash their hands, etc.?
  4. Can you tell me about the needles and inks you use? They should come in sealed packages and be appropriately disposed of after use.
    Lastly, many people ask if tattoos can cause cancer. Tattoos generally do not increase the risk of skin cancer. However, the Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute does not recommend tattooing over moles or getting tattoos in body areas with many moles. This can make changes in moles harder to detect. A changing mole can be indicative of skin cancer, which is easiest to treat when found early.

How should I take care of my tattoo?

Caring for your tattoo appropriately after the procedure will guarantee a more beautiful result and a healthier you. Your tattoo artist and/or parlor should provide you with aftercare instructions. These may vary by the size/location of your tattoo and your tattoo artist, but here are some general guidelines.

  1. Clean the area by washing with a fragrance-free gentle soap once it is safe to do so, as your tattoo artist recommends.
  2. Apply ointment to the site regularly. Some tattoo parlors will recommend you use a specific cream. Once you have used the ointment as recommended, you want to continue keeping it moisturized.
  3. Avoid submerging your tattoo in water for a few weeks. This includes staying out of pools, hot tubs, lakes, oceans, or other bodies of water. Do not place your tattoo under a direct stream of water when taking a shower.
  4. Protect your tattoo from the sun. It is best to keep it out of the sun for a few weeks, and then you’ll need to protect it as you would your whole body – by using sunscreen.
  5. Choose your clothing carefully so that it doesn’t stick to your tattoo.
    If you do develop a rash or see that the site is getting infected, contact your health care provider or a board-certified dermatologist.

At Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute, our highly experienced board-certified dermatologists, certified physician assistants, and licensed nurse practitioners are happy to answer any questions about this topic and any dermatology questions you may have. Book an appointment for a consultation at any of our ten convenient locations in the Greater Reno-Tahoe area.


Elizabeth Cassinelli, MD – Dr. Cassinelli is a Board-Certified Dermatologist practicing at our Reno – Warren Way location. Her specialties are in medical dermatology and skin cancer treatments. She is a Nevada native who enjoys spending time with friends and family, traveling, reading, and having adventures outdoors. For appointments, click here.

Bringing you patient-centered, world-class dermatological care with 10 locations in the Reno-Tahoe area. Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute specializes in Medical Dermatology, Mohs Skin Cancer Surgery, and Cosmetic Dermatology.

Originally published “KEEPING YOUR SKIN HEALTHY WITH TATTOOS”, edible Reno-Tahoe