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Not just for show: Tattoos and medicine

Sophia Charlotte

The body modification trend has seen an uptick in people getting decorative tattoos. Tattoos have a long history of being used for not only decoration, but a symbol of status, determining ownership of slaves, and to punish criminals. Despite the long history, questions of tattoo safety still remain. 

Joining us is Dr. Bruce Katz, director of the Cosmetic Surgery & Laser Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital, to discuss tattoo safety, removal and new uses in medicine.


Tattoos are usually done by licensed artists who use a needle to deposit ink into the skin. The reason the ink stays in place and doesn’t fade as skin sheds is because the needles deposit the ink into the dermis layer of the skin.

“The dermis is really full of collagen, tightly curled collagen fibers. So once the tattoo ink is put there it really stays in exactly the same location.” Katz said.  

Safety of getting a tattoo

Tattoos are generally safe to get, as long as you go to a reputable artist. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently does not have any regulations for tattoo artists and shops. It not only varies from state to state but between each county or city. Doing research on each artist and shop is the best way to assure you are getting safe tattoos.

“Most tattoo artists use disposable needles so you don’t have to worry about sterility or transmitting infection. But you should always check out the references on the tattoo artist, make sure they’re reputable, in a lot of states they’re licensed today. And that’s really the best way to assure you’re getting safe tattoos.” Katz said.

Another risk that people are less aware of is allergic reactions to the ink used, which could result in redness, swelling, and hives or a rash. The most common inks to cause an allergic reaction are red or orange. While this is a less common, it is still important to get the rash treated or even get the tattoo removed if the symptoms are severe enough.

“Patients who have red inks or orange inks have the highest instance of allergic reactions. So what happens is the tattoo ink that is red or orange or whatever they are allergic to becomes raised and it could become very itchy and swollen and that could be difficult to take care of,” said Katz.

Other concerns with tattoos are types of metal in the ink as well as reactions with getting magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). While most tattoo inks no longer contain metal, it is best to tell your health care provider about any tattoos you may have so they can be protected during scans.

Tattoos for medical purposes

While tattoos are usually used for decoration today, the medical field has found ways to utilize tattoos while treating cancer patients. Patients that receive radiation treatments sometimes have little black dots tattooed where the radiation treatment was. This is common for breast cancer patients who usually have the little black dots on their chest. Not only are patients have tattoos from treatment, but breast cancer survivors are getting tattoos after mastectomies.

“Tattoo ink is used to basically tattoo the appearance of the nipple on a breast after a mastectomy,” said Katz.

Tattoo removal

While tattoos are permanent there is an option if you want your tattoo removed.  A series of laser treatments used to break up the pigmented ink in the dermis layer of skin. This process in the past has taken between ten to fifteen treatments, but new technology can break up more colors and do it in less treatments.

“And these are called the picosure lasers, and these are lasers that fire at one trillionth of a second, that’s how fast they fire. And they have dramatically improved the ability to remove tattoos in a much shorter period of time sometimes five or six treatments will completely remove a tattoo.” Katz said.