Findings from a new study show that more than 10 percent of adult New Yorkers who got a tattoo developed a rash, severe itching, swelling or infection. The research, published May 27 in the journal Contact Dermatitis, found that 6 percent of people who got “inked” suffered skin complications that lasted four months and in some cases, years.
“We were rather alarmed at the high rate of reported chronic complications tied to getting a tattoo,” senior study investigator Marie Leger, MD, PhD, said in a news release. “Given the growing popularity of tattoos, physicians, public health officials and consumers need to be aware of the risks involved,” added Leger who is an assistant professor in the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center’s department of dermatology.
For the study, Leger and her colleagues surveyed 300 people with tattoos in New York City’s Central Park in June 2013. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 69 and had an average of 4.7 tattoos, though one person had 53. The arm was the most popular site for tattoos, with 67 percent of study participants having on or more on their upper limbs.
The researchers found that 31 people reported they had experienced some kind of rash, itching, swelling, scaling, infection, delayed healing or raised bumps. Within that group, 18 said their problem lasted more than four months.
And the reactions can be quite striking. “The colored portion can sometimes raise up as much as a centimeter above the skin and can affect the texture of the skin and the way the tattoo looks,” Leger told NBC News.
The longest-lasting skin complications occurred in the areas injected with the two most common tattoo ink colors – red and black. According to the news release, 44 percent of chronic reactions were to red ink, even though only 36 percent of the survey respondents had tattoos with that color. Used in 90 percent of tattoos, black ink was involved in one-third of the skin complications.
“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,” said Leger. “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.”
As the popularity of tattoos continues to grow – one in five adults in the United States has at least one tattoo – Leger advises taking some precautions if you have a tattoo or are considering getting one, including limiting sun exposure, getting inked at a reputable tattoo parlor, taking proper care of the tattoo immediately after it’s done, and consulting a doctor if you have other medical problems that might be affected by getting a tattoo. In addition, she suggested giving some thought to avoiding red ink.