Infections can occur even in the cleanest tattoo parlors when artists use contaminated tattoo inks. This serious complication is not your fault or your artist’s fault — but you may be able to hold the ink manufacturer responsible for failing to ensure the sterility of their inks.
Pre-Tat Numbing Gel Recalled for Tattoo Infection Risk
In August 2019, a recall was issued for Pre-Tat by Tat Balm skin numbing gel and cream after it tested positive for microbial contamination, which could increase the risk of a tattoo infection if it is applied before a person gets a tattoo. Click here to read more.
Getting a Tattoo? Watch Out for Bad Ink
The FDA has issued a recall for contaminated ink, but they are warning that similar products are still being sold online and may be causing tattoo infections.
Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?
In May 2017, the FDA issued a Consumer Update about the risks of getting a tattoo after 363 people reported tattoo infections from bad ink and other severe side effects. An infected tattoo may cause a rash, redness, bumps, and fever. There is also a risk of more severe complications:
“More aggressive infections may cause high fever, shaking, chills, and sweats. Treating such infections might require a variety of antibiotics—possibly for months—or even hospitalization and/or surgery.”
Red Tattoo Ink Linked to Cancer
In July 2016, European health experts warned that tattoo inks can be toxic and increase the risk of cancer. The risk is greatest for red ink, but also blue, green, and black.
In one case report from September 2014, a 48 year-old man developed aggressive skin cancer only in the red areas of his tattoo. Doctors had to transplant healthy skin from his arm onto his thigh after removing the tattooed skin and cancer
“A Thousand Virgins” Tattoo Ink Recall
IIn August 2015, tattoo ink sold by Miami-based “A Thousand Virgins” Corp. has been recalled due to fungal and bacterial contamination that could lead to a life-threatening infection. Click here to read more.
White & Blue Lion Ink Class Action
In December 2014, a class action lawsuit has been filed in California by two people who developed severe tattoo infections after using bad ink from White & Blue Lion, Inc. Click here to read more.
White & Blue Lion Tattoo Ink Recall
JWhite & Blue Lion, Inc. and 8Decades have recalled tattoo ink that may be contaminated with bacteria. However, the FDA is concerned that these products (and similarly-packaged products) are still being sold to tattoo artists. The recalled ink is sold in single bottles and also kits that contain anywhere from 5 to 54 or more bottles of variously colored inks. They are often marked with a “Best By” date or lot number. Click here to read more.
What Should I do?
“Consumers and tattoo artists should be aware of the origin of their materials and should be able to identify and contact the manufacturer in case adverse events occur. Be wary of products that don’t carry a brand or the name and place of business of the manufacturer or distributor. In addition, consumers should take appropriate steps to minimize the possibility that the inks injected into their skin may be contaminated. In this circumstance, the inks have been made from pigments that are not intended for injection into the skin.”
About 21% of American adults report having a tattoo. If you have a tattoo, you know that most infections are caused by failing to take care of a new tattoo properly, non-sterile needles or equipment, inexperienced artists, or wearing irritating clothing.
However, in some cases, tattoo infections are caused by inks that are contaminated with bacteria. In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine reported several clusters of infections that were traced to tattoo ink from an unnamed manufacturer.
When the CDC investigated, they identified over 50 probable cases in several states, of which 23 were confirmed. Victims were infected with nontuberculosis mycobacteria, a pathogen that is difficult to diagnose and treat. Most people must have a skin biopsy (which may leave scarring) and take antibiotics for several weeks.
In the last decade, there have even been outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant tattoo infections with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Symptoms of Tattoo Ink Infection
- Weeping wounds (yellow-green pus)
- Raised bumps around the tattoo
- Hard nodules or knots (granulomas)
- Blisters (may be filled with blood or clear fluid)
- Excessive pain at the site
- Foul odor
- Red streaks going outward from the tattoo
The FDA regulates tattoo inks as a cosmetic, which means ingredients are subject to a pre-market approval process. More than 50 pigments and shades are currently used in tattoo inks, and the list keeps growing. However, no color additives are approved for injection into the skin. Serious side effects may include infections, allergic reaction, skin cancer, keloids, granulomas, and more. Click here for more side effect information.
A serious skin infection can potentially spread bacteria to the bloodstream, causing sepsis (blood poisoning), septic shock, organ failure, and death. Early symptoms may include fever, shaking chills, or excessive sweating. Treatment for sepsis involves hospitalization, intravenous antibiotics, and sometimes surgery.
If you suspect that your new tattoo is infected, seek emergency medical attention — do not wait until it is festering. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that your new tattoo will be severely disfigured. The infection can also spread to your bloodstream and cause death. Your doctor will probably prescribe an oral antibiotic medication, which should clear up the infection in a couple weeks. Click here for more treatment information.
Scarring & Permanent Disfigurement
Getting an infection in a new tattoo is disappointing and frightening, because you don’t know how the tattoo will look when it heals. Minor blemishes are often correctable by a skilled artist, but there is no treatment for changes in skin texture or tone. Scarring is permanent, and camouflaging it can be extremely challenging. Severe infections can be life-threatening.