A tattoo is created when an artist inserts ink, with the help of a needle, into the layer of skin known as the dermis. This changes the skin’s pigment and can be used to create almost any image imaginable.

Tattoos have become more and more popular in recent years. According to some surveys, anywhere from 30 percent to 44 percent of American adults have tattoos.

Piercing is another popular form of body art. In this type of body modification, a piercing artist uses a needle to puncture a hole into the body. They then insert a piece of jewelry into this hole.

Although tattoos and piercings have grown in popularity, these procedures have health risks. Before making the decision to modify your body, it’s important to understand the adverse side effects associated with these procedures.

There are different types of tattoos and piercings.

For example, permanent makeup is one form of tattooing. This is when permanent ink is used to mimic the look of eyeliner, lip liner, eyebrow pencil, or other kinds of makeup.

Body parts that can be pierced include the:

More dramatic body modification procedures include:

When you receive a tattoo, a tattoo artist uses a handheld machine with an attached needle to puncture the skin. Every time this device makes a hole, it injects ink into the dermis — the second layer of skin below the epidermis.

Tattoos are a common form of self-expression, but they also damage the skin and can cause complications. Complications can include:

Tattoo ink can even interfere with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests.

The long-term effects of tattoo ink and colorings remain unknown. Until recently, no government regulatory agency has closely examined the safety of tattoo ink.

More than 50 colorings used in tattoos have been approved for use in cosmetics, but the risk of injecting them beneath the skin is unclear.

Such pigments are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So far, the FDA has only looked at whether these pigments were safe for external use, not for injection under the skin. No coloring has been officially approved for injection under the skin.

Modifying your body with piercings also carries a measure of risk, such as the risk of a bacterial infection.

Some people develop an abscess after getting a piercing. This pus-filled mass can develop around the piercing. This is a serious side effect. If left untreated, there’s the risk for sepsis or blood poisoning.

Sepsis is a life threatening illness that occurs in response to infection. It can result in organ failure and death. Symptoms of blood poisoning include:

Infections are more common with mouth and nose piercings because these areas contain more bacteria.

Other risks associated with body piercings include:

  • swelling around the piercing site
  • formation of a keloid around the piercing
  • bleeding caused by a damaged blood vessel

There are also location-specific risks with body piercings.

Tongue piercings

A tongue piercing can cause damage to your teeth and cause you to have difficulty speaking.

Additionally, if your tongue swells after you get the piercing, the swelling can block your airway. This will make it harder to breathe.

Genital piercings

A genital piercing can cause pain during urination and sex. The risk of complications is higher if you have other medical conditions, such as:

Talk to a doctor before getting a piercing if you have any of these conditions.

You can lower the chance of health complications caused by a tattoo or piercing by taking a few simple precautions.

Tips for safe tattoos

  • Get a tattoo from a licensed, reputable facility. Tattoo regulations and requirements vary by state, so check with your local department of health for the latest safety laws.
  • Choose another facility if there’s evidence of poor hygiene in the shop. Work surfaces, chairs, and nondisposable equipment must be properly cleaned and sterilized between customers.
  • Check to make sure your artist uses a fresh pair of gloves and washes their hands before starting the procedure.
  • Make sure you observe your artist removing needles from a new, sealed package. Needles and razors shouldn’t be reused.
  • The area of skin being tattooed should be swabbed with a disinfectant, such as rubbing alcohol, prior to tattooing.
  • Fresh tattoos should be covered with sterile gauze or a bandage. Follow the artist’s instructions for caring for newly tattooed skin.

Tips for safe piercings

  • A piercing gun should only be used on earlobes. To avoid crushing delicate tissues, your piercer should use a hollow needle on other body parts.
  • Piercers should wash their hands and put on a fresh pair of disposable surgical gloves.
  • Body piercings should be performed with a single-use needle, which is disposed of after each use.
  • Jewelry should be sterilized before being inserted through the body.
  • Piercing equipment and surfaces should be sanitized and wiped down after each customer.

Following proper aftercare steps will lower your risk of infection and complications.

Caring for a tattoo

It can take about 2 weeks for the top layer of your skin to heal. You can reduce the risk of infection by only touching the tattoo on rare occasions until it heals.

  • Keep new tattoos bandaged for the first 1 to 2 hours only. Apply antibiotic ointment to your skin after removing the bandage.
  • Gently clean the tattoo with plain soap and water, and then pat dry.
  • Use a mild, unscented moisturizer on newly tattooed skin throughout the day.
  • Avoid direct sun exposure for the first few weeks.

Caring for a body piercing

Healing times for piercings will vary.

According to the Center for Young Women’s Health, they can range from about 6 weeks for ear or nose piercings to 1 year for belly button or male genital piercings.

  • Gently clean new piercings with a saltwater solution. Soak clean gauze in the solution, and then apply the gauze to the new piercing.
  • Only clean piercings twice a day. Overcleaning can irritate skin and slow the healing process.
  • Wash your hands with warm water and antibacterial soap before touching or cleaning piercings.
Signs of infection

Signs of an infected tattoo or infected piercing include a fever, an abscess, and red, swollen skin. See a doctor immediately if you suspect an infection.

Tattoos can be removed, but not always completely or with satisfying cosmetic results. The process is expensive and requires repeated visits to a doctor. Scarring is also likely.

The FDA recommends laser surgery performed by a dermatologist as a safe tattoo removal technique. Consult your doctor if you’re thinking about having a tattoo removed.

The reversal of a piercing is usually as simple as removing the jewelry and allowing the hole in the skin to heal. Punctured cartilage, stretched skin, and other body modifications may require surgical correction.