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think before you ink

What You Should Know Before Getting a Tattoo, According to Doctors

Tattoos are so popular, there are now official guidelines from pediatricians.

Ashley Lyles

Tattoos have long been stigmatized as a sign of high-risk behavior. But as attitudes toward people with tattoos and piercings have begun to change, the medical community is taking note. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a report aimed at educating physicians, young adults, and their families about the potential harms in such body modifications as well as the factors they should consider to make an informed decision. In short, doctors know that teens are going to get tattoos with or without their parents' consent—they just want them to be smart about it.

A study from 1997 found that 55 percent of high schoolers were interested in tattoos and lots of them act on it: 14 percent of teens have ink, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

There have been previous medical reports on tattoo and piercing safety, but none have been a simple collection of all the evidence-based material, like this one is. Cora Breuner, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital and co-author of the report, began exploring the topic of modifications among young adults after her then-teenage daughter expressed interest in getting a belly button piercing. "I, as her mom and as a pediatrician, had no guidelines on how to help her," Breuner says.

Breuner reached out to her peers in pediatrics hoping to fill the information gap, but the recommendations—summarized here—are useful to people of any age. "We need to put together guidelines that help the pediatrician, that help healthcare providers, that help teenagers, young adults and their parents, families," Breuner says. "And, for that matter, help all people that are considering a tattoo or piercing make an informed decision that allows them to have a safe and sterile procedure done that has no complications and that they are happy with."

Those who have tattoos have often been stereotyped as having unconventional and unstable lifestyles. A 2012 report drew a connection between these body modifications and suicide, illicit drug use, potential disease or infection, eating disorders, and other harmful behaviors. Acknowledging these concerns, Breuner says, "you should get it done with complete understanding of complications, from something as simple as redness and pain, all the way to it gets infected, to it scars, to if you don't get it from a sterile salon you attract some rare disease from an unclean needle like HIV or hepatitis." The guidelines remind people that tattoo artists should use fresh, disposable gloves, a new needle removed from a sealed container, and fresh ink poured into a new container. And people getting tattoos or piercings should be up-to-date on immunizations.


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When considering a tattoo, Breuner encourages people to make their decision about both design and placement carefully as it is, you know, permanent. "You have to go to extensive and expensive lengths to get a tattoo removed," she says. "It takes hundred of dollars to go through laser therapy to have it removed and it may not remove it completely. And other techniques can called dermabrasion can really hurt, and leave a scar, too." Breuner recommends trying less permanent options like henna first before going for a permanent tattoo in order to get a feel for it, but you can also try temporary tattoos from companies like Tattly.

Although attitudes are changing somewhat, tattoos and piercings are still off-putting to some people. In a 2014 survey, 76 percent of people thought tattoos and piercings hurt an applicant's chances of getting a job. A 2012 survey found that 37 percent of employers cite piercings as a characteristic that makes a job candidate less likely to be promoted. In the same report, 31 percent of employers felt the same way about visible tattoos.

Breuner acknowledges this mindset, and explains that there is more than one factor at play when it comes to tattoos and piercings in the workplace. There's a geographic component, for one. "Certain parts of the country are more accepting and tolerant of people in the workforce having a tattoo or piercing than others." She further explained that as baby boomers start to retire and our bosses get younger, "there will be more tolerance of people in the workforce having a visible tattoo or piercing." A Harris Poll conducted in late 2015 found that 47 percent of millennials have at least one tattoo compared to just 13 percent of baby boomers (about three in ten Americans have some ink up from two in ten in 2011).

All in all, Breuner says, "'I'm hoping that what this [report] has been able to do for people who are already pierced is to have people not look at them like there's not something wrong with them."

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