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I want to get a tattoo. How safe is it these days? Add to ...

The question: I am interested in getting a tattoo but I want to do it safely. Any advice on the safety of tattoos and, if I change my mind later in life, is there any risk to having it removed?

The answer: Tattoos can be a symbol of a momentous change in our lives or accomplishing a goal, or just a form of self-expression. That being said, sometimes when the daylight breaks or years pass, there can be some remorse when we look back upon the decision to get a tattoo.

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We all have things that we wish we could reverse, and when it comes to tattoos, many can feel regret for one that is too large, in the wrong location or may be the name of an ex-partner that is inked on your skin forever.

A tattoo is permanent body art, so if you’re already thinking that you may want to have it removed later in life, give yourself some time to reflect and consider if it’s the right choice for you.

Tattoos are created with ink droplets that are inserted into the skin with repeated needle pokes. As with any procedure that involves a break in the skin, there is potential for infection, bleeding and pain.

Another risk, although low, is an allergic reaction to the dye that can result in itching and rash formation at the site of the tattoo.

The most significant complication of getting a tattoo can come from infections found in blood. This is a rare occurrence, but a contaminated needle can lead to a life-threatening infection such as hepatitis B or C or HIV. A dirty needle can also lead to tetanus, so make sure your vaccinations are up to date before getting a tattoo.

You can minimize your risks with some careful preparation. First, think about where you want to have the tattoo done on your body. While it’s not a medical risk, consider how your body will change as you age. With changes in weight or pregnancy, skin will stretch and cause a distortion of the original tattoo. Also, consider if you want the tattoo visible or hidden from view, as it could effect future social or employment opportunities.

Next, do some research and choose a tattoo salon with care. Health Canada does yearly inspections of tattoo shops to ensure that they are complying with health and safety regulations. They check on how equipment is sterilized and the cleanliness of the work environment.

But while shops need to be licensed, the specific artist does not necessarily need to be, so do some research before you commit, and make sure you are going somewhere reputable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how they sterilize their equipment and ensure the safety of their patrons. A good tattoo shop will welcome your questions and address your concerns.

Once you’ve had your tattoo done, take care of it to decrease the risk of infection from bacteria on the skin. You should receive some instructions on how to care for the tattoo from your artist. For the first 24 hours, keep the tattoo covered and avoid moisture on the area. Initially, you will need to avoid sun exposure which can irritate the skin further. Avoid swimming.

If you do develop a skin infection, which can appear as redness, pain or swelling, seek out medical attention – you may need to use topical or oral antibiotics.

Removing a tattoo is not an easy process, but it is possible. It is done by dermatologists who can remove the tattoo either by laser therapy, which breaks down the dye in the skin, dermabrasion or surgical removal. Which option to choose will depend on the size of the tattoo and the colour of the dye, so speak to your doctor about what procedure is best for you.

The main risks of these procedures can include scarring or skin discoloration. Sometimes the bigger cost, though, is the actual financial investment required for tattoo removal, which can take several sessions to complete and cost significantly more than it did to get the tattoo.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens’ Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women’s Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail’s Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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