SEATTLE - Seattleites are known for being health-conscious, but the city also has a noticeable love of tattoos. So it's reasonable to ask, can tattoos ever be safe? The answer is: not entirely.
"Nothing is 100-percent safe," said Dr. Jeff Duchin, chief of Communicable Disease Epidemiology & Immunization for Seattle & King County Public Health. "You can choose a tattoo parlor and environment where the risk of infection is as low as possible, but it's never going to be zero."
One reason for that is the tattoo ink itself, which contains live organisms and has no safety regulations over its production. The FDA has not approved any tattoo inks, and there is no industry standard for water used to dilute ink.
In 2009, medical investigators reported a Seattle resident developed a skin infection from tattoo ink. The man developed lesions around the tattoo that persisted for nearly 18 months. A second man who visited the same tattoo artist was also infected, though the artist had followed all Washington safety and sanitation standards.
"Artists have no way of knowing if their ink is contaminated," Duchin said.
David Potter, the manager of Hidden Hand Tattoo in Fremont, recommended consumers go to a reputable artist and ask where they purchase their ink, as each artist may buy from a different producer.
"Buy from a reputable supplier, and everything should be fine," Potter said. "Any professional manufacturer should take appropriate measures."
But, even with uncontaminated ink, all tattoos carry a risk of allergic reactions and infections, including hepatitis, HIV, STAPH, MRSA and Streptococcus. That's why the Washington State Department of Licensing has offered customers tips to be as safe as possible when the needle hits their skin.
Make sure the shop and artists are licensed
Department of Licensing Deputy Director Teresa Berntsen recommends customers make sure the tattoo shop they select is properly licensed, meaning they follow very strict safety and sanitation rules and are subject to inspection every two years, or upon receipt of a consumer complaint.
She said artists should also be licensed proving they are at least 18 years old and have a current blood-borne pathogens certificate.
"Getting a tattoo can be a great experience if the tattoo artist is properly licensed and following all of the safety and sanitation rules," she said.
Check the overall cleanliness of the shop
Berntsen recommends consumers visit tattoo parlors and check out their overall cleanliness: make sure work surfaces, equipment, and towels are clean; ask the artist about their sanitation procedures; make sure needles, stencils, pigments, dyes, razors and products used to control blood flow are only used once; and make sure the artist properly covers all equipment that might come in contact with the customer.
She said artists should always wash their hands before working and wear gloves.
Potter at Hidden Hand recommends customers check out the shop's autoclave - a machine used to sterilize equipment - which should be kept away from any decontaminated equipment.
Keep it in a professional shop
Duchin said the risk of infection grows significantly when tattoos are given outside a professional shop.
"There are all sorts of environments where you can get tattoos and some are extremely unsafe," he said.
The Department of Licensing states people should not get a tattoo in someone's kitchen or living room, and shops should have an outside entrance separate from any rooms used for sleeping or residential purposes.
"Most professionals just wouldn't do that," Potter said. "You don't have access to certain safety equipment."