Getting a tattoo should require a lot of consideration. After all, a tattoo is forever.
But doctors say there may be something else to think about besides the design you want etched onto your body for the rest of your life. Researchers at the NYU Medical Center say as many as 6% of New Yorkers who get tattoos end up with some form of tattoo-related rash.
When these rashes appeared, researchers said the severe itching or swelling could last longer than four months and, in some cases, for many years.
“We were rather alarmed at the high rate of reported chronic complications tied to getting a tattoo,” said Dr. Marie Leger, a dermatologist and senior study investigator. “Given the growing popularity of tattoos, physicians, public health officials and consumers need to be aware of the risks involved.”
Tattoos are more than simply popular, they have become mainstream. Once mostly found on sailors, tattoos are now part of popular culture.
And just as very few middle-aged people take up smoking, tattoos are mostly embraced by the very young. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 36% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have gotten tattoos. The body art is as equally popular with women as men.
May require surgery
Leger says some cases of “tattoo rash” are treatable with anti-inflammatory steroid drugs, but others may require laser surgery. There have even been instances of particularly strong reactions when surgery was necessary to remove tattooed areas of the skin or built-up scar tissue.
While the NYU survey, conducted in New York's Central Park, is in line with previous European studies, Leger says it's impossible to know if the problem affects more than 6% of people with tattoos. With very little regulatory oversight, she says it is hard to know the true scope of tattooing complications.
For example, she says the chemical composition of colored inks used in the designs is not well understood, nor is it even standardized among manufacturers.
“It is not yet known if the reactions being observed are due to chemicals in the ink itself or to other chemicals, such as preservatives or brighteners, added to them, or to the chemicals’ breakdown over time,” said Leger. “The lack of a national database or reporting requirements also hinders reliable monitoring.”
The study also found that as many as 10% of people getting a tattoo experienced other types of short-term complications, such as delayed healing, pain, swelling, and infection within weeks of getting tattooed. Leger isn't surprised.
“The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body’s immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood,” she said. “Some of the reactions appear to be an immune response, yet we do not know who is most likely to have an immune reaction to a tattoo.”
While tattoos are undoubtedly popular, enough people suffer buyer's remorse that there is a thriving industry in tattoo removal. Just Google “tattoo removal” and you'll find scores of dermatologists in your area offering to remove a tattoo, most often with a laser procedure.
The Mayo Clinic points out that when you get a tattoo, the ink is placed below the skin. That makes removing it a complicated, and more expensive procedure than getting a tattoo in the first place.
If you want to remove a tattoo, the clinic says you need to see a dermatologist. Do it your self remedies, such as creams, don't work.