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Tattoo Safety - Cross Contamination And What Your Artist Doesn’t Tell You


A detailed look at tattoo safety and measures taken to prevent cross contamination and the transmission of infectious diseases in the tattoo industry.


By Karen L. Hudson, for Tattoos.net

Tattoo Safety is an important part of preventing the spread of infectious disease……

Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking: “Bor-ring! I just want to look at cool tattoos!” 

I hear ya, I really do – the idea of talking about hygiene and safety brings back memories of all the great naps I got in school when they showed those horrible films in health class. But if you can bear with me for just a little while, you just might learn something that could save your life.

Let’s start out with a brief explanation of the two phrases you will read often throughout this article:

Blood Borne Pathogens

A pathogen, in this instance, is a living microorganism that carries and has the potential to cause disease. Since we’re talking specifically about blood-borne pathogens, that means the microorganisms are present in blood and bodily fluids. As far as tattoos go, the only bodily fluid that could potentially be an issue is saliva, if someone gets a tattoo inside their mouth. 

Disease and Infection Risk

Cross contamination is when you transfer microorganisms from one location to another through contact with your own body or some other object. Since microorganisms are invisible, numerous, and can reproduce at an alarming rate, it’s very easy to accidentally cross-contaminate if your methods aren’t absolutely precise. 

To give you an idea of how cross-contamination works, the best illustration is to start with something you’re familiar with: your own home. Have you ever cooked in your kitchen? Do you have any idea how easy it is to spread food-borne pathogens? Well, let’s take a look:

And if you think it’s not as big a deal as he makes it out to be, or that everyone knows how to be safe in the kitchen, check out this little factoid:  “[The] CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.“.

And that’s just food related illness. There are many other ways that we cross-contaminate every day without giving it much thought, but fortunately our bodies build up a resistance to the most common germs around us. However, there are some things you can’t ever build up an immunity to, like disease—especially blood borne diseases.

There are four diseases known to be transmitted through blood:

- Hepatitis B

- Hepatitis C


Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (such as Ebola and Marburg)

In addition to blood-borne illness, you are also susceptible to various germs and bacteria the moment your skin is broken with the tattoo needle. You’ve probably heard that we all have hundreds of bacteria living on our skin, and about a third of the human population carries some kind of staph bacteria, including MRSA. All it needs is the smallest opening to enter your body and start wreaking havoc. A localized infection that gets out of control can lead to tissue loss, limb amputation, and even death. 

Compared to a little salmonella in your potato salad, these mo-fos are the rampaging Godzillas of the pathogen world. So, if you value your health, your vital organs, and your life, you need to know how to protect yourself from these invisible monsters. And when it comes to getting a tattoo, that means knowing if they are doing things right to protect you!

If your artist was doing something wrong, would you even know? So many people think it’s proof that their tattooer is being safe because he wears gloves. Wearing gloves doesn’t mean jack. Did you know that professional artists are even trained in the proper donning and removal of protective gloves? If something that simple isn’t done correctly, the process of cross contamination has already begun. Here’s a short video on glove safety:

Looks legit, right? Well, guess what? It’s WRONG. That so-called instructional video shows a potentially dangerous method of glove removal, because it could lead to cross-contamination. Here’s another video on the CORRECT way to remove disposable gloves:

And that’s just putting on and taking off the gloves, but there’s even more training that goes into knowing when to remove gloves and don a new pair. Wearing gloves means nothing if your tattooer touches a contaminated surface and then touches your broken skin. Remember – microorganisms are invisible and numerous! 

Going Beyond Gloves

To outline all of the training a tattoo artist has to go through in order to be certified in blood-borne pathogens and cross-contamination prevention, it would take several pages and I know you don’t really want to read that much. If you really want to know all of the ins and outs of tattoo safety, then I suggest you take a course in BPP/CCP yourself. You can take the course and be properly certified for $25.00 through the Red Cross Online Training Course. Then you’ll know for sure what to expect from your tattoo artist.

However, even if you aren’t certified, now that you know that tattoo artists are held to a high standard when it comes to cleanliness, it’s your job to make sure they uphold those standards before sitting in their chair. Watch them work on other clients and look to see if they are being careful about how they work, what they touch, and when they change their gloves.

Here’s a few other safety rules professional tattoo artists follow:

- The client’s skin must be wiped clean first, to remove as much skin “flora” as possible.

- If deodorant stick  or similar product is used to transfer the stencil, it is never applied directly to the skin. It’s applied to a    clean paper towel first and then the towel is applied to the skin to distribute the product. 

- Spray bottles of water or soap are never used on the skin. Instead, squeeze bottles are used to prevent a backspray of pathogens.

- Proper bandaging should always be used. Saran wrap is NOT proper bandaging.

Even if your prospective artist isn’t tattooing, you can learn about their habits by checking out their booth. Unoccupied stations should be wiped clean with no used tools laying around. Floors should be mopped clean. 

Autoclave Sterilizing

Typical examples of a Steam Autoclave Sterilizer (left) and the sterile pouches before (top right) and after (bottom right) being autoclaved.

One of the biggest and most important things that every tattoo artist is required to do in order to prevent cross contamination is to sterilize any equipment that is re-used from one client to the next. Every tattoo shop – unless absolutely everything they use is disposable – should have an ultrasonic cleaner and autoclave sterilizer. All tools and grips have to be pre-cleaned, placed in OSHA-approved sterilization pouches, and put in an autoclave sterilizer that reaches the required temperature and pressure to kill all pathogens. 

An example of a spore test kit (left) and a results report example from Thrive Studios.

In addition to this procedure, the autoclave itself must be tested regularly (usually monthly) to make sure it is operating properly. To do this, a spore sample from a lab is sent to the shop to be sterilized in the autoclave. Then the sample is sent back to the lab to be tested, to make sure all the spores are dead. Then the lab sends the results back to the shop. Every tattoo shop with an autoclave should have their spore test results available for anyone who wants to see them.

One Shot/Disposable Studios

There are some tattoo shops that have gone completely disposable, for safety and convenience. Needles and tubes (grips) both come in disposable options. However, if the shop also does piercing, it is very unlikely they could get by without an autoclave. Piercing needles, clamps, and even the jewelry all need to be sterilized prior to use and should come out of a sterilization pouch before they use them on you, including the disposable ones.

You Made It!

Well, if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this article, congratulations. You’ve learned some things that could protect your life and the lives of those around you. These standard precautions apply everywhere you go, not just the tattoo shop. Now, go reward yourself for learning something and make sure to share this article with your friends so they can be protected, too. 


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