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Hepatitis C Update: Is it Safe to Get a Tattoo?

Nicole Cutler L.Ac.

May 29, 2012

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Thanks to a recent multi-study review, we now have a better understanding of the Hepatitis C transmission risk from getting a tattoo.

No longer associated with the unsavory reputation of its past, tattoos have gained a steadily increasing level of popularity and acceptance in modern day America. Becoming more common across all age groups, there are a variety of reasons people get tattoos. Unfortunately, the industry’s lack of regulation means that getting a tattoo may carry health risks. As a blood-borne pathogen easily transmitted via a contaminated needle, the Hepatitis C virus has long been considered one of those health risks. Despite this longstanding assumption, new data released from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrates that tattoos received in a professional setting are not associated with any increase in Hepatitis C transmission.

There is plenty of evidence documenting the rise in tattooed Americans. The following statistics paint a clear picture:

  • In 1936, Life magazine estimated that 2 percent of Americans had tattoos.
  • In April 2000, The National Geographic News stated that 15 percent of Americans had tattoos.
  • According to a Fall 2006 Pew Research Center survey, 36 percent of Americans ages 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those ages 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo.

There are several reasons people choose to have a permanent marking on their body. Three of the most prevalent motivations for getting tattooed, include:

  1. Expressing one’s individuality
  2. Marking an important event
  3. Beautifying the body

Whatever the motivation for receiving a tattoo, the threat of acquiring Hepatitis C may have caused some to think twice about getting inked. Experts believe that an estimated 4 to 5 million Americans are living with chronic Hepatitis C, a virus that is transmitted easily via direct blood-to-blood contact. Although shared intravenous drug equipment is known to be a leading cause of Hepatitis C, approximately 20 percent of those infected do not know how they acquired their infection. Thus, any unregulated practice involving piercing of the skin has become a suspected risk factor for Hepatitis C transmission.

To address the suspicion of tattoos as a risk factor for Hepatitis C, Rania Tohme and Scott Holmberg from the CDC performed a critical review of previous studies in an effort to sort out conflicting findings in the medical literature. Upon scouring medically published papers on the topic between 1994 and July 2011, 62 were eligible for inclusion in their analysis. As published in the April 15, 2012 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, investigators found the following:

  • There was no evidence for an increased risk of Hepatitis C infection when tattoos were received in professional parlors.
  • The risk of Hepatitis C infection was significant when tattoos were done in prison or by friends.

This new information is a virtual boon to the professional tattooing industry, as professional tattoo artists are no longer viewed as potential facilitators of Hepatitis C infection. If someone has chosen to get a tattoo, Tohme advises making sure the artist uses sterile equipment, including single-use needles and ink that has not been used on anyone else. In addition, experts suggest asking how the artist keeps his or her clients safe and observing the shop’s cleanliness/hygiene practices.

The tattoo industry is steadily going towards the mainstream, with a multitude of dedicated fans. Even though this involves a needle being repeatedly inserted into the skin, getting a tattoo doesn’t necessarily raise the risk of contracting a blood-borne infection – like Hepatitis C. As long as the ink is applied in a professional tattoo parlor by an artist who is aware of and follows infection control practices, those wanting a tattoo should not let fear of getting Hepatitis C thwart their plans.


http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/8/1167.abstract, Transmission of Hepatitis C Virus Infection Through Tattooing and Piercing: A Critical Review, Rania A. Tohme, et al, Retrieved May 19, 2012, Clinical Infectious Diseases, January 2012.

http://hepatitis.about.com/od/lifestyle/a/tattoos.htm, Color Me Yellow, Charles Daniel, Retrieved May 19, 2012, about.com, 2012.

http://pewresearch.org/databank/dailynumber/?NumberID=237, 36% – Tattooed Gen Nexters, Retrieved May 20, 2012, Pew Research Center, 2012.

http://www.hivandhepatitis.com/hepatitis-c/hepatitis-c-topics/hcv-prevention/3453-professional-tattooing-and-piercing-not-linked-to-hepatitis-c-risk, Professional Tattooing and Piercing Not Linked to Hepatitis C Risk, Liz Highleyman, Retrieved May 19, 2012, hivandhepatitis.com, 2012.

http://www.temporarytattoofactory.com/temporary-tattoo/temporary-tattoos/Absolutely%20Amazing%20Tattoo%20facts%20and%20Statistics.html, Absolutely Amazing Tattoo Facts and Statistics, Retrieved May 20, 2012, temporarytattoofactory.com, 2012.

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Posted by Nicole Cutler L.Ac. on May 29, 2012

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