a cluster of skin infections in upstate New York last fall led back to
one tattoo artist, local public health officials took the usual step of
investigating the artist’s hygiene practices. They found that all of his
equipment and methods were sanitary, but the nationally distributed ink
he had been using, even in unopened bottles, wasn’t.
similar investigations in Colorado, Washington and Iowa turned up
harmful strains of bacteria in three other brands of ink. At least 22
skin infections across the four states were linked to contaminated ink,
according to research reported Wednesday (Aug. 22) in the New England
Journal of Medicine, reports LiveScience.com.
pathogen in the New York outbreak was identified as Mycobacterium
chelonae, a relative of the bacteria behind tuberculosis and leprosy
that is commonly found in tap water. Though M. chelonae is usually
harmless to people with normal immune systems, when it’s escorted
beneath the skin by a tattoo needle, it can cause a painful rash that
can last for months, requiring strong antibiotic regimens and sometimes
surgery to eradicate.
According to the Centres for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC), past tattoo-related Mycobacterium
infections likely arose from the use of unsterile water as a diluting
agent in ink. And because the ink that caused the New York outbreak was
“gray wash,” pre-diluted black ink used for shading, the CDC has
speculated that its manufacturer may not have been using sterile water.
should Americans, one of five of whom now reportedly sport indelible
ink, be afraid to get a new tat? Is there any way to be sure that a
given manufacturer’s tattoo ink is sterile?
The answer to the
second question is a definite no. Currently, there is no FDA regulation
requiring that tattoo inks be sterile, so a consumer only has a
company’s or an artist’s assurance to go on. It is also worth noting
that although a number of the colour pigments used in tattoo ink have
been approved by the FDA for use in cosmetics, not a single one has ever
been approved for injection into the skin.
Because reporting is
voluntary, there is not good data on how often tattoo-related skin
infections occur, but if one decides to play the odds and join the
millions of Americans who are already inked, there are a few
precautionary steps that he or she can take to decrease the chances of
Along with watch-dogging artists during tattooings
to ensure that they use sterile water for dilution and cleaning, the CDC
recommends that a consumer only use tattoo parlours registered by local
jurisdictions and request inks that are manufactured specifically for
tattoos. If an infection does occur, the CDC advises seeking medical