The Washington Post

Reports implicate contaminated ink in tattoo infections

When I got my tattoo a few years ago, I made sure to go to a reputable artist/technician who kept a clean studio and took steps to maintain sterile conditions, disinfecting his equipment in an autoclave, wearing disposable surgical gloves and using brand-new, sealed needles and containers of ink. It never occurred to me to ask whether the ink itself was sterile.

(Alberto Cuadra/WASHINGTON POST)

My tattoo was uneventful. But a rash of reports this week from the New England Journal of Medicine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration point to contaminated inks as the source of icky-sounding, potentially dangerous skin infections among people with tattoos.

As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine Wednesday, 19 people in Rochester, N.Y. were infected by Mycobacterium chelonae bacteria after receiving tattoos late last year.

The bacteria apparently resided in pre-mixed ink used in creating their tattoos; the manufacturer of the inks was located and it stopped selling those inks. The infections caused painful, pus-filled blisters that typically required aggressive treatment with antibiotics. The CDC report notes that similar infections have been documented in three other states, too.

Estimates vary – from one in five people to one in four – as to how many people in the U.S. have tattoos. Either way, it's a big population. So it’s kind of surprising to learn that the FDA hasn’t approved any tattoo inks. The agency regulates them as cosmetic products, but    until recently it hasn’t regarded them as a top priority.

As the FDA's consumer advisory notes, the agency is overseeing current research into tattoo ink’s safety. The inks in the Rochester outbreak were pre-diluted by the manufacturer to create gray ink used in shading tattoo images. Some tattoo artists dilute their own ink, a practice that can introduce bacteria to the mix.

Here’s good advice from the Mayo Clinic for people contemplating getting tattooed. Like other  similar documents I found online, it doesn’t specifically suggest asking about the safety of the ink itself. But it now appears you should do so.

Have you considered getting a tattoo? Does this news make you think twice?


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