How to cure an infected tattoo and tattoo ink allergy?

How to cure an infected tattoo and tattoo ink allergy?
May 9, 2016 at 6:44 PM

People have been practicing decorative tattooing for thousands of years. In ancient times it was used for adornment, while in some cultures and traditions tattooing was a symbol of distinction of social rank. It still remains the case in present day in some cultures; however, it has also become all the rage among everyday people of western countries in the last decade or two.


  1. Tattoo infections
  2. Symptoms of a tattoo infection
    1. Inflammation
    2. Itching
    3. Pain
    4. Swelling
    5. Discharge
    6. Foul odor
    7. Fever
    8. Red streaks
    9. Swollen lymph nodes
  3. Treatment of an infected tattoo
  4. Causes behind tattoo infection
  5. How to prevent tattoo infections?
  6. FAQs related to tattoo infection
    1. What happens after the infection is cured?
    2. Should I talk to my tattoo artist?
    3. Why should I contact the studio?
  7. Allergic reactions to tattoos
    1. Acute inflammatory allergic reaction
    2. Photosensitivity
    3. Dermatitis
    4. Lichenoid allergic reaction
    5. Pseudolymphomatous allergic reaction
    6. Granulomas
  8. Signs of an allergic reaction
  9. Treating allergic reaction to tattoo ink
    1. How to find a reputable doctor to perform laser tattoo removal?
    2. What to expect during laser tattoo removal?
    3. What are the possible side effects and risks associated with laser tattoo removal?
  10. What is the difference between tattoo infection and tattoo allergy?
  11. I am pregnant, is it safe to get a tattoo?
    1. Infection
    2. Epidural
    3. Stretch marks
  12. Are there any skin cancer risks associated with tattoos?
  13. Is it safe to get an MRI scan with a tattoo?
  14. Summary

With the increase in number of people getting tattoos in today's society, a rise in the number of tattoo-linked skin disorders has been observed (1).

The entry of foreign substances into skin can cause a wide range of undesirable effects, including a noxious or immunologic response to the tattoo pigments themselves, transfer of infectious diseases, and onset of skin disease within the tattoo. Some types of tattoo pigments and probable contamination of tattoo inks can trigger reactions that vary from comparatively mild to very severe, especially in people with preexisting medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and immunological disorders (1, 2).

On July 7, 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration released a consumer warning about the possible health hazards connected with tattoos due to reports of infections from a line of home tattoo kits. Tests showed bacterial contamination in sealed and unopened tattoo ink bottles (3).

As a result of tattooing skin conditions such as are cellulitis, impetigo, herpes simplex, staph, herpes simplex, fungal infection, syphilis and viral warts can occur. Hepatitis C, a fatal liver disease, and HIV/AIDS are two of numerous diseases that can be transmitted along through body fluids. This means you can contract these lethal diseases if you get a tattoo from a shop where contaminated needles are used (4, 5, 6).

Tattoo infections

Symptoms of a tattoo infection


This can appear as a pink or reddish discoloration around your tattoo (7).

The tattoo may begin to itch which can be a sign of irritation. Softly put your clean hand on the area that feels inflamed to see if its temperature is warmer than the rest of your skin and if the heat appears to spread which can be a danger signal of a developing problem.

Infected tattoo

It is not unusual to have some inflammation on a fresh tattoo but if you observe it spreading over the initial couple of days your skin may be contaminated.


Does your tattoo itch? This means that your tattoo is infected with germs and they are trying to multiply. In retaliation to this, your body has sent along a whole troop of soldiers to do battle.

Your tattoo is now a war zone.If you are a healthy individual, chances are that the scales will tip in your favor. But the healing process could take a long time.

Meanwhile, it is very painful for you. The other problem is that immunological response could ruin the look and appearance of the colors in your tattoo.


Is your tattoo smarting and painful?

It is normal to experience a little pain after getting a tattoo. But if it continues to sting and hurt for a long time and the pain worsens gradually with time it might be a signal that your tattoo has become infected.


A light amount of swelling isn’t unusual after getting a new tattoo. But if swelling exacerbates, causes discomfort and you feel the pain spreading beyond the site of the tattoo, then it might signal towards an infection. If left unattended, swelling may begin to radiate out. Get immediate medical help and wait a few days before reaching to any conclusions. When you get a tattoo, the whole area will be red, a bit swollen, and slightly tender and sensitive.

New tattoos will be prickly and painful, about as sore as harsh sunburn. During the first two days of getting a tattoo, it can be very tricky to ascertain whether or not an infection has set in, so don’t be hasty. Follow a proper tattoo aftercare procedure and maintain a wait and see policy.


All fresh tattoos secrete material as the skin begins to heal itself therefore oozing a clear liquid that usually dries up to re-cover the fresh wound, thanks to our very supportive blood cells. If discharge doesn't stop even after 48 hours and begins secreting yellow or greenish pus, then you most probably have an infection. Don't rely on self medication and seek medical aid at once.

Foul odor

Anaerobic bacteria cause emission of a foul smell. If your tattoo begins to smell bad, visit your dermatologist to check for infections.


Fever is a warning sign of an underlying condition such as an infection. It should be noted though, that fever is common among people whose bodies were tired, stressed and are generally not in good health before getting the tattoo. It is best to observe first and not to jump the gun. If fever won't go away until after two days it is best to seek medical attention.

Red streaks

Red streaks that radiate beyond the original tattoo site could signal blood poisoning. Seek emergency medical help because it could be lethal if left untreated.

Swollen lymph nodes

Any time that the lymph nodes swell implies that the immune system is fighting an infection or intruder. Examine for swelling in the nodes that are closest to the tattoo.

Treatment of an infected tattoo

Show the infected area to your tattoo artist. If you have concerns about your tattoo that it might be infected but aren’t sure, the best person to consult at first is the tattoo artist from whom you received the tattoo. Show them any developments and ask them to further proceed (8).

Doctor holding pain killer sign

If you are experiencing extreme symptoms, like bad smelling liquid discharge and severe pain, skip this step and go to your doctor or the hospital emergency room at once to receive treatment.

Consult a dermatologist or doctor. If you have spoken with your tattoo artist and have tried to treat the symptoms as best you can but still the symptoms persist, it is important to seek medical help as soon as possible and get started on antibiotics. There's not any helpful topical medication out there, but antibiotics can help battle the infection.

Start using antibiotics as directed by your doctor as soon as possible to help your immune system ward off infection. Most tattoo skin infections should be able to be easy to fight quickly, but blood infections are tough business and need to be treated quickly.

Apply a topical medication or ointment as directed. Your dermatologist may prescribe topical ointment as well as antibiotics to quicken up the healing process. If so, dab the topical ointment regularly on your tattoo and keep the tattoo as clean as possible.

Wash it gently with clean water two times a day and follow your doctor’s instructions. Apply an antibiotic ointment to your smarting tattoo, such as Bacitracin or Polysporin, to a nonstick bandage, for example Telfa.

Put the nonstick bandage with some ointment on it to the affected area. The topical ointment will keep the irritated skin from sticking to the bandage. Applying the ointment on the bandage first will be less painful. If itching or a skin under the bandage starts, clean or wash the ointment off and don't use that ointment again. The rash may indicate an allergic reaction.

Change the bandage if it gets wet and apply a clean bandage daily. If the bandage sticks to the affected area, soak the tattoo area in warm water for a few moments or strip the bandage off under running water in the shower.

Take the bandage off with the skin exposed to air whenever you can.

After treatment, you should keep the tattoo covered with sterile gauze, but also expose it to enough air to avoid development of any more infection. The tattoo should be exposed to fresh air to a safe extent. Air is required to heal the infected tattoo but be careful to shield the infected site against dust particles and other foreign particles. Always keep it covered with sterile gauze when you go out and change the gauze regularly.

Keep your tattoo from the contact of dirt, body fluid, pets etc. While sleeping be careful not let the infected area stick to your bedding. Just by keeping the infected site covered, you will be doing a huge favor to yourself and protecting yourself from any further infections. If the site is open, it becomes more prone to other contaminants because the air is full of dirt, germs and viruses.

While the infection heals, keep the tattoo dry and don’t allow it to remain wet. Wash your tattoo regularly with a very small bar of non-scented soap and clean water, and then dab it dry completely before bandaging it or keeping it uncovered. Never soak or cover fresh tattoos that have become infected.

Do not swim if your tattoo is infected as chlorine in swimming pools can harm your skin. Keep the area dry and free from moisture even while taking a bath. Cover the tattoo while taking a shower. By making sure that the infected area is dry, you can quicken up the healing process. Extra attention and precautions are needed for speedy recovery.

Do not use any chemical based products like creams or beauty soaps, make up or any petroleum- jelly on the tattoo as these products can be harsh for your skin, they may aggravate the infection and hamper the healing process. Only use products that your doctor prescribes you and do not scratch the tattoo site, by doing this it can aggravate the wound.

Stop any bleeding from the wound. Light bleeding can be checked by applying direct pressure to the infection site. It is not unusual for the tattoo site to ooze small amounts of blood for up to one day and clear, yellow, or blood-tinged liquid for a few days.

Apply an ice pack to help relieve the bruising, swelling, or itching. Never apply ice directly to the infection site. This may cause tissue damage. Put a layer of fabric between your skin and the ice pack.

Take an antihistamine drug, such as Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton, for treatment of hives and to relieve itching. Do not use strong detergents, soaps and other chemicals, which can make itching worse.

Causes behind tattoo infection

There are several different causative factors as to why a person’s tattoo becomes infected. Some of them include:

  • The most common reason for a tattoo infection is that the instructions regarding hygiene and maintenance given on how to look after your tattoo are not being properly followed.
  • The tattoo parlor or place where you got your tattoo is not clean.
  • The tattoo artist is not officially certified or properly trained.
  • The equipment at the tattoo parlor is not adequately sterilized, the needles used may not be clean or the tattoo artists may not wear gloves.
  • You are not exposing your tattoo to adequate amount of fresh air.
  • You might be wearing clothing items that are irritating your tattoo and preventing it from healing. Your clothes could also be rubbing against your tattoo.
  • While your skin is being pricked and bruised during the process it is being exposed to the air and there could be germs in the air that get into the tattoo.
  • Not cleaning or washing the tattoo site enough.
  • Being around a lot of infected persons.
  • Swimming with a freshly done tattoo especially in muddy ponds or lakes.
  • Sleeping on unsanitary sheets and using dirty towels.
  • Allowing other people to handle their new tattoo design before it’s healed.
  • Touching your own tattoo using dirty fingers.
  • Not following proper aftercare instructions.
  • Scrubbing dishes, washing clothes and toilets.
  • Using strong chemical lotions creams or make up products.

How to prevent tattoo infections?

Many people are steered away from wanting to get a tattoo by fear of infection. The fact is, the majority of people who get tattoos never contract an infection. While the risk of infection is significant, there are simple procedures and precautions you can follow to greatly reduce any possible tattoo infection risks.

  • Only get your tattoo from certified and trained tattoo artists.
  • If you are going to get a tattoo, spend some time hunting for reputable and good tattoo parlors and artists in your area, and make sure the professional you choose to tattoo your body has a license and that the parlor has a satisfactory track record of cleanliness and hygiene.
  • Do not indulge in stick 'n pokes and other home tattooing options.
  • Even if your friend is really excellent at giving tattoos, make an appointment with someone who has a license and gives tattoos professionally to get yours done.
  • If you make an appointment and show up at the place to find any suspicious behavior or unhygienic environment, cancel your appointment and walk out. Look for a better tattoo parlor.
  • Ensure that your tattoo artist uses new sterile needles. For good professional tattoo artists cleanliness is a topmost priority and they will take steps to show you clearly that they are using brand new needles and putting on gloves.
  • If you don't see this happening, don’t hesitate to ask. Good tattoo parlors should make this obvious and should respect your concern for your health.
  • Always keep your tattoo site clean. Strictly follow the instructions the tattoo artist gives you about aftercare of your new tattoo and adopt all precautions. Wash gently with warm soapy water and dry it properly, starting 24 hours after getting the tattoo.
  • Tattoo artists will usually give you with a tube of an ointment called Tattoo goo, or other topical ointments which should be applied to fresh tattoos to keep them clean and healing properly, for at least a couple of days after receiving the tattoo.
  • Never use Neosporin or Vaseline on new tattoos.
  • Let your tattoo receive enough air as it heals. In the first couple of days of getting a new tattoo, it's vital to keep it as comfortable as possible, allowing it to heal naturally.
  • Avoid wearing clothing that might irritate or chafe the area and keep it out of sunlight as much as possible to avoid bleeding the ink.

What happens after the infection is cured?

The aftermath of a tattoo infection depends on the severity of infection and whether scabs, sores or crusty blisters have developed.

In serious cases, people develop scar tissue and the color and design fading away is a common occurrence. Sometimes, limbs have to be amputated if the infection becomes too severe.

Should I talk to my tattoo artist?

Your infection is not a responsibility of the tattoo parlor or professional who gave you your tattoo. The studio’s responsibility is only till the time that you were in the studio and they are under no obligation to fix your tattoo.

Tattoo Artist in Las Vegas

The only case in which the artist might be legally obliged to fix an infected tattoo or compensate financially is when you have substantial proof that the procedure was performed in unsanitary conditions and proof that thoroughly followed the aftercare instructions recommended by the tattoo artist. But really, would you risk dealing with them again? A better option might be reporting them to the health department.

Why should I contact the studio?

The tattoo parlor might be able to provide you with helpful information relevant to your infection issue. There’s a chance they might even offer to fix any discoloration or damage for free.

Contacting them also informs the tattoo studio that you are going through a problem. They wouldn’t want the name of their business to be tarnished so there’s a good chance that they’ll try to pacify you.

Allergic reactions to tattoos

A tattoo allergy can be of various types (9, 10):

Acute inflammatory allergic reaction

In people experiencing acute inflammatory allergic reaction after getting a tattoo the skin becomes red, irritated and slightly swollen at the tattoo site. This takes place because of the irritation caused by the tattoo ink and tattoo needle. It's not a serious condition and generally subsides on its own in a couple of weeks.


Exposing tattoos to sunlight may trigger an allergic reaction, especially in those tattoos that contain yellow tattoo ink. Yellow and red tattoo dyes have cadmium sulfide, which can cause an allergic reaction when exposed to the sun.


Photoallergic and allergic contact dermatitis might be caused by getting a tattoo. Mostly, these types of allergic reactions are caused by mercury sulfide, which is found in red tattoo pigment.

Lichenoid allergic reaction

This is a rare allergic reaction typically associated with red tattoo ink, and characterized by small bumps that appear around the tattoo site.

Pseudolymphomatous allergic reaction

This a delayed reaction caused by sensitivity to a substance present in tattoo ink— it doesn't occur immediately after getting the tattoo. Red tattoo ink is usually the main culprit but blue and green inks may trigger it too sometimes.


These are tiny bumps that occasionally appear as a result of an allergic reaction. Red tattoo ink usually behind it but purple, green, or blue tattoo ink may also cause these bumps to erupt around the site of the tattoo.

Signs of an allergic reaction

You are advised to get tested for allergies before receiving a tattoo. While allergic reactions are uncommon, some people are allergic to particular ingredients present in tattoo ink, which can create an unpleasant and painful situation if you get a tattoo. It's best to get an allergy test performed prior to getting a tattoo (11).

Normally, black ink doesn't contain any harmful substances that people are allergic to, but often colored inks will have other chemical additives that can trigger allergic reactions in some people. If you just want to get a simple tattoo with India ink, you're probably safe, even if you have sensitivities.

The signs differ depending on the type of allergic reaction and the components in the tattoo pigment that's causing it. Most common signs of an allergic reaction to a tattoo include:

  • Swelling
  • Rash and bumps
  • Redness
  • Skin has a scaly appearance
  • Flaking
  • Purple or red nodules around the tattoo site

Treating allergic reaction to tattoo ink

Mostly allergic reactions to tattoos are comparatively minor and do not need emergency medical aid. Application of soothing agent such as aloe vera or special ointments made for tattoos can help reduce the discomfort of the reaction. For allergic reactions that are more severe and painful, Benadryl can be used, or skin medications prescribed by a doctor, such as steroids, can be used to relieve inflammation (1, 12).

Sometimes, severe reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, can take place at the time the tattoo is being applied; in those cases, treatment should be given on emergency grounds by a medical professional. Sometimes, the tattoo may even need to be removed to treat the allergic reaction. Never try to remove a tattoo yourself — tattoo removal should be performed by a medical professional, usually with a skin laser.

How to find a reputable doctor to perform laser tattoo removal?

I order to have a tattoo removed; you should make sure that you find a well reputed dermatologist or cosmetic surgery center to ensure proper care and treatment. If possible, you should get advice or a recommendation from your family doctor for a dermatologist or skin surgery center that specializes in tattoo removal procedures.

What to expect during laser tattoo removal?

The number of treatment sessions may vary according to size and color of your tattoo. Your tattoo may be removed in two to three sessions, and sometimes it may take as many as ten more sessions. You should schedule a consultative sitting, during which time a medical professional will assess your personal situation and give advice to you on the process (13).

Tattoo removal by laser

Removal of allergic tattoo with the laser varies from patient to patient depending on the age, size, and type of tattoo (done by an amateur or professional). The color of the patient's skin, as well as the distance downward to which the tattoo pigment extends, will also affect the removal procedure and duration.

Generally, this is what happens during an office visit for tattoo removal using lasers:

  • Protective shields are placed on patient’s eyes.
  • To determine the best energy for treatment, the skin of patient is examined under various intensities of laser.
  • The procedure itself consists of putting a hand piece against the surface of patient’s skin and switching on the laser light.
  • As many patients describe it, each laser pulse feels like a grease spatter or the striking of a rubber band against the skin.
  • Small tattoos require lesser pulses while larger ones require more. In either case, the tattoo removal needs several treatments and multiple visits.
  • After each session, the tattoo should become progressively lighter.
  • Immediately after laser treatment, an ice pack is applied to soothe the affected area.
  • The patient is then asked to out on some topical antibiotic cream or ointment.
  • A protective patch or bandage will be used to shield the site and it should similarly be covered with a sun block when out in the sun.
  • Most patients do not need any form of anesthesia. However, depending on the site of the tattoo and the pain sensitivity of the patient, the dermatologist may elect to use some form of anesthesia (topical anesthesia cream or painkiller injected at the site of the tattoo).

What are the possible side effects and risks associated with laser tattoo removal?

The side effects caused by laser tattoo removal are insignificant. However, you should mull over these factors in your decision:

  • The tattoo removal site is highly prone to infection.
  • The patient is also at risk of lack of complete pigment removal.
  • There is a small possibility that the treatment can leave you with a permanent scar.
  • You may also be prone to hypopigmentation, where the affected skin is paler than surrounding areas or hyperpigmentation, where the skin subjected to laser treatment is darker than surrounding skin.
  • Cosmetic tattoos like eyeliner, lip liner, and eyebrows may darken after treatment with tattoo removal lasers.
  • Additional treatment of the darkened tattoos usually results in fading.

What is the difference between tattoo infection and tattoo allergy?

Here is a table summarizing the main differences between a tattoo infection and a tattoo allergy:

Tattoo Infection Tattoo Allergy
May persist for a long time. Usually subsides quickly.
Fluid discharge, fever, swollen lymph nodes. No fluid discharge, fever or swollen lymph nodes.
Antibiotics are used for treatment. Antihistamines are used for treatment.
Laser removal is not required. In severe cases, laser removal is required.
Sunlight has no effect. Sunlight may aggravate it.
External factors and unhygienic conditions play a greater role. Patient’s sensitivity to ink plays major role.

I am pregnant, is it safe to get a tattoo?

Here are some safety concerns for pregnant women who might be wishing to get a tattoo (14):


The tattoo ink won't enter your bloodstream (the needle only goes into about one eight of an inch into your skin), but some of the studies that exist on tattoo ink suggest that some of it may be metabolized or move through your lymph nodes. In rare cases, there have been reports of ink being contaminated with bacteria.

Tattoo artist in action

Also of course there is a risk of infection any time you get injected with a needle – in this case, the major concern would be hepatitis or HIV from an unhygienic needle.

Most tattoo studios are meticulous about cleanliness when it comes to their tools and surfaces, as required by state and local authorities (things to search for: a certified professional tattoo artist; an autoclave, which is a machine that sterilizes tattoo equipment; and new, disposable unopened gloves, sterile bandages, needles and dyes for each new customer).


Some gynecologists and anesthesiologists are worried about whether it’s safe to perform epidurals on women with tattoos on their backs (a common tattoo site), under the concern that the tattoo needle could push pigmented tissue into the spinal cord and trigger some sort of harmful growth or infection.

There’s little medical research on this — and to date, rare cases have been reported. Still, if you have a back tattoo, or if you’re thinking of getting one, it is something you should talk over with your doctor ahead of time, so there are no unpleasant surprises in the delivery room.

Stretch marks

Another concern is appearance of tattoo. A new tattoo that looks shapely on your 15-week pregnant skin might become distorted or lopsided after you regain your pre-pregnancy figure — if you choose to get it in a spot that’s likely to expand during pregnancy, like your belly or your side. There’s also the possibility of stretch marks, which could appear right in the middle of your new design (most common spots: buttocks, abdomen, breasts and thighs).

Make sure that your tattoo artist follows or was following these guidelines:

  • They are a licensed practitioner (if your state registers tattoo artists).
  • They wear clean gloves throughout the procedure.
  • They have a sterilizing unit or autoclave to sterilize equipment.
  • The equipment and surfaces are hygienic.
  • All the needles used are brand new and designed for one time use only.
  • The dressings are packed, sealed and sterile.
  • The inks or dyes used for tattooing are also sterile and uncontaminated.
  • The artist is available to you the first 24 hours if you encounter any problems. (Find out the availability of the professional if you have any problems in the days and weeks ahead).
  • If you have a tattoo and doubtful about the practices of the parlor where you had it done, make sure you are tested for Hepatitis, HIV, and Syphilis.

Are there any skin cancer risks associated with tattoos?

Dermatologists have been observing patients with tattoos for years and years for any evidence of skin cancer, and they have yet to find an increased risk of the disease in those individuals. The same holds true for patients who have already gone through melanoma or other forms of skin cancer; the chemical pigments used in tattoos have never been known to elevate their risk of recurrence. Patients who have had skin cancer are always at increased risk of having future skin cancers, but tattoos do not raise that risk.

Cancer in newspaper

However, it is never a good idea, to have a tattoo placed in close proximity to or within a mole. Changes taking place in a mole — texture, symmetry, color, border size, shape— are potentially main warning signs that this lesion may be developing into a melanoma or another form of skin cancer, so make certain that all moles are left completely visible, or it could delay diagnosis. When a melanoma is detected and removed at an early stage, it is almost always completely curable, but more advanced stage melanomas are far more difficult to treat, so anything that prevents or delays detection can be extremely hazardous. If you do get a tattoo, make sure it is placed far from any mole. This is particularly important for people who have several moles or dysplastic nevus (atypical mole) syndrome, as they are at enhanced risk of developing skin cancer, potentially within one of their moles.

But according to some studies harmful substances from tattoo ink could be absorbed into the body and cause cancer. Some scientists believe ink nanoparticles could join the bloodstream and accumulate in the kidneys and spleens, damaging the body's ability to filter impurities (15). Studies have found that some varieties of tattoo ink used in the UK contains known carcinogenic substances and scientists want more regulation on the dyes used by the industry.

Public Health England says that some tattoo inks contain toxic elements such as cobalt and mercury. Some researchers want similar regulations on tattoo dyes that have been implemented on the smoking and sunbathing industries.

Desmond Tobin, director of Bradford University's centre for skin sciences, told The Sunday Times that he was shocked to find out that there was no regulation on inks (16).

He said: 'We need to do more research, but there is no question that these substances can be harmful and injurious to skin.'

Almost 30 per cent of British adults have a tattoo and recently Public Health England published new guidance on the industry.

It said: 'Some varieties of inks are distributed in market with little or no accompanying product data and their ingredients may remain uncertain even at the point of use.' The report found that red inks have been found to contain mercury, while greens and blues have been found to have cobalt in them.

Another researcher Ariel Ostad, a professor of Dermatology at NYU Lagone Medical Center, reported in the New York Times that tattoos are an unlikely cause of skin cancer (17). Any reaction of skin to the tattoo is handled by infection-fighting cells directly at the site of the tattoo. The ink in the tattoo pigments stays in the skin cells of the tattoo and does not spread into the bloodstream or move to other parts of the body. He says that the only elevated risk in a tattoo causing skin cancer occurs when the tattoo covers up a mole, making changes at that skin location difficult to see.

This is particularly true if darker inks are used and cover the mole area.

If you do decide to get a tattoo here are some precautions you are advised to exercise:

  • Make certain to leave a good amount of healthy skin around any moles or birthmarks so changes can be easily detected.
  • Make sure your tattoo artist washes their hands with germicidal soap, uses disposable gloves while working on your tattoo and uses single-use disposable needles.
  • Ask your tattoo artist about how their surfaces and equipment are sterilized and how they dispose away used needles and equipment when done.

Is it safe to get an MRI scan with a tattoo?

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines are used for locating tumors and other abnormal growths within the human body with the help of very strong magnets. Besides these magnets, an MRI machine makes use of radio frequency waves to activate protons in the body cells, releasing signals that appear as a grayscale image, according to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at the University of Florida.

People with tattoos or permanent makeup have been known to occasionally experience swelling or burning sensation in the tattooed areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (18). This seems to take place only rarely and without any visible lasting effects. There have also been cases of tattoo inks interfering with the quality of an MRI image. This seems to happen mostly when a person with permanent eyeliner gets an MRI done of the eyes. Mascara may result in a similar effect, but it can effortlessly be removed. Why these problems occur is not fully determined yet. It may be possible that they take place due to an interaction with the metallic components of some pigments.

Tattoos can interfere with quality of an MRI scan depending on the substances present in the tattoo ink and the size of the tattoo. Since there are presently no FDA-approved tattoo inks, establishing which chemicals were used in a tattoo can be difficult. But medical experts say that some ink colors are more reactive than others.

The dye used in red tattoo pigments contains iron (for example, bring to mind the color rust), which is magnetic and very much vulnerable to the magnetic fields used in MRI machines, said Moriel NessAiver, a physicist who specializes in MRI safety in Baltimore.

"Since iron is a transmitter of electricity, loops of current are induced when the magnetic fields are quickly shifting during the imaging process," NessAiver said. "Any moment you have a current flowing, as in a wire or other metal, that metal can get heated enough to burn."

If your tattoo is in the shape of a loop, it may act like an antenna, and can also get gradually hotter as the ink pigments pick up more and more hear from the magnets, according to NessAiver. The reaction can result in inflammation and swelling of the tattooed skin and its surrounding body parts, as well as the skin feeling hot and irritated.

The most severe reactions result in first and second-degree burns, according to a 2008 study conducted by Italian researches and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Tattoos present around or near eyes are especially of concern, as the area can be very sensitive to surplus heat. The FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors cautions those with permanent facial tattoos (such as lip liner, eyebrow and eye liner tattoos) to consult with their doctor and MRI technician about possible burn risks so that necessary precautions can be taken.

While any metallic material puts forth a health risk when MRI machines are involved (that is why individuals with cardiac pacemakers and inner ear implants that contain metallic parts cannot get MRIs), the FDA assures that tattoo burns from MRI machines "seem to take place rarely and it appears that without any lasting effects."

"Best thing is, don't get a tattoo," NessAiver advises. "If you have one and need an MRI scan, be sure to inform your doctor and the MRI technologists so they can estimate the risk versus the benefit. If your tattoo's ink does not contain any iron in it, then it should be quite safe." (19)

The risks of not getting an MRI when your doctor has recommended one are likely to be much serious than the risks of complications from a tattoo. Instead of not getting an MRI, people who have tattoos or permanent makeup should inform the radiologist or technician so that they can take precautions to avoid complications.


There are many risks and dos and don’ts associated with getting a tattoo. Things to remember while getting a tattoo are:

  • Always get a tattoo after asking around in your friends’ circle, doing research and hunt out a well reputed tattoo parlor.
  • Make sure that you receive your tattoo under hygienic conditions with sterilized equipment and that the tattoo artist wears disposable gloves. Do not compromise on your well being or health.
  • If an irritated tattoo becomes worse over time look for signs of possible infection such as foul smell, fluid discharge, swelling, pain, red lesions, fever. Seek medical aid at once. Your dermatologist will most probably prescribe an antibiotic ointment that should be applied with a bandage.
  • Your skin may be allergic to particular kinds of tattoo inks. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to tattoo are redness, swelling, inflammation, scaly and flaky skin and eruption of red or purplish nodules.
  • In case of an allergic reaction, seek medical aid at once. Usually for treatment of allergic reaction to a tattoo, laser removal procedure has to be performed.
  • Signs and symptoms of an infection and allergic reaction vary. There is no bad smell, fluid discharge or fever during an allergic reaction.
  • During pregnancy, you should only get a tattoo from a licensed tattoo artist and ensure that all equipment and surfaces are sterilized or you may catch an infection that could also harm your baby. Avoid getting tattoo on your back in case you require epidural anesthesia during delivery.
  • MRI scan with a tattoo may cause burns. This incident is extremely rare but still inform your doctor or radiologist if you have any tattoos prior to getting an MRI scan.
  • Researchers are divided over the debate if tattoo ink elevates risk of skin cancer or not. You are advised to not get any tattoo on a mole so any changes to it that may be a sign of skin cancer may be detected.

Overall, it is safe to get a tattoo if you get it under sterile environment and hygienic conditions. But you should remember that if symptoms of infection or allergic reaction to tattoo ink appear it is necessary to get immediate medical help.

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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Physician
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Tattoo infection picture (the first picture in the article) provided by Jim Pants

Published: May 9, 2016 at 6:44 PM
Last updated: August 16, 2016 at 4:10 PM
Next scheduled update: August 16, 2018 at 4:10 PM
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