Photo: Catt Gallinger | Facebook
You may have heard of tattoos in strange places.
But what about the eyeball?
A 24-year-old model was left partially blind after having her sclera — the white part of the eye — tattooed.
The Canadian woman says she wanted the whites of her eyes to be purple.
She says her tattoo artist didn’t dilute the ink and injected too much of it in her eye. This caused her eye to swell and for her to cry purple tears.
Experts say everyone should be able to see the inherent danger in this practice.
“The sense of sight is so precious and important. Why would someone subject their eye to unnecessary procedures performed by a non-eye care professional?” Dr. Colin A. McCannel, a professor of clinical ophthalmology and vitreoretinal surgeon at UCLA’s Stein Eye Institute, told Healthline.
“All procedures have risks,” McCannel added. “And in this kind of case — to have the tattooing done by someone who is a complete layperson with regard to the eye and its unique anatomy and challenges — is something I do not understand.”
It’s not just eye specialists who are baffled by the idea of tattooing the sclera.
Dr. Adam Friedman, a dermatologist from the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said tattoo inks weren’t intended for use in the eye.
“I am personally shocked someone would tattoo their sclera or conjunctiva. The anatomy of the eye is completely different from the skin, which is the intended target of the various tattoo pigments,” he told Healthline.
Other risky locations
The eye isn’t the only sensitive place people are getting tattoos.
In 2014, Miley Cyrus showed off her inner lip tattoo.
Earlier this year, Madonna posted a photo on Instagram that appeared to show a tattoo on a woman’s pubic area.
Inner ear tattoos are also popular.
“Ears and genitals, while certainly delicate areas for several reasons, are certainly safer than directly into the eye,” Friedman said.
But that doesn’t mean these areas are the best place to get tattoos.
“When considering the ears or genitals, one has to consider that the skin is thinner for both than other areas on the body,” Friedman said. “Ears are not highly vascular and are unexposed areas often forgotten when considering sun protection, so therefore, healing is often slower,” he explained.
“Gram-negative bacterial infections are known to occur on ears following procedures more so than other locations,” Friedman added. “Conversely, the genitals are highly vascular and have no cartilaginous or bone support. Injury to underlying vessels is greater because of this — not to mention the thin nature of the skin.”
And although Cyrus is sporting an inner lip tattoo, the American Dental Association (ADA) says research into the safety of mouth or lip tattoos is limited.
“There are currently no tattoo-ink products or procedures that have been properly evaluated regarding their safety for use or application within the mouth,” the ADA said in a statement to Healthline.
The amount of people with tattoos in the United States is on the rise.
A 2016 Harris Poll found that 3 in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo. That’s up from 2 in 10 in 2012.
That same poll found that almost half of millennials surveyed say they have at least one tattoo, compared with just 13 percent of baby boomers.
“People have been trying to enhance various body parts since ancient Egyptian times,” Dr. Michi Shinohara, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Washington, told Healthline.
She believes tattoos on the eyes and genital areas are best avoided.
“Genitals are an area of the body which already carries a higher microorganism load, and so is at higher risk of infection than other parts of the skin,” she said.
Dr. Mary Jane Minkin is a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale School of Medicine.
In her 35 years of private practice, she’s never seen a tattoo in the pubic region. She also wouldn’t recommend it.
“First of all, there is always a risk of infections anywhere, and infections in the genital region can be quite painful. And do remember there are tons of bacteria in the area,” she told Healthline. “Also… there are many nerve endings in the genital region. One condition that we deal with is vulvodynia, a common pelvic complaint of pain in the vulvar area… why introduce another potential cause of pain?”
Minkin argues there are areas of the body that would be “a lot less potentially problematic” for a tattoo.
But the case of the 24-year-old model shows that despite the risks, some people are still likely to continue with tattoos in sensitive places.
“If someone is determined to get a tattoo in a sensitive area, they should go to an experienced, licensed tattoo artist who demonstrates that they have experience tattooing these areas of the body,” Shinohara said.
As for tattooing the eye, McCannel says it’s an absolute “no-go” zone.
“Don’t mess with your eyes. It is arguably the most precious sense we have and usually lasts us to our last breath. Don’t risk it,” McCannel said.