Complete Guide to Tattoo Safety 2021

The worst thing a tattoo artist can do isn’t a bad tattoo. It’s giving someone a life-long disease. 

The skin is normally the body’s #1 defense against infection. Tattooing opens the skin, which puts the body at risk. As a tattoo artist, you need to know how to keep your clients safe. You do this through proper sanitation and using the right equipment.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How to avoid the biggest health risks at your tattooing station
  • Which reactions to keep an eye out for
  • How to buy safe equipment and ink, and more

Bloodborne Pathogens

Bloodborne pathogens are viruses that infect people through bodily fluids. Since tattoo artists deal with blood, you’ll need to protect yourself from the blood of your client, and you’ll need to make sure there’s nothing around from a previous client that could infect your next one. 

BBP Training

Before you tattoo anyone, you need to go through an OSHA-approved BBP training program. It will teach you how to deal with infectious material while you’re tattooing and how to properly dispose of needles, razors, and more.

Most states require you to have BBP training to get a tattoo license.
Click here to find training with our Complete Guide to Bloodborne Pathogens Training.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

PPE is how you protect yourself from clients’ blood. You should always use a new pair of gloves for every client. You can also opt for a facemask and/or protective glasses while you work. 

Sterilized or Disposables Materials

If you use the same needles, tubes, etc. two different clients, you risk spreading disease through cross-contamination. This is why most artists opt for a “disposable setup” with all single-use items that get thrown away after the client’s tattoo is done. 

Some artists prefer to use stainless steel tubes. To make sure they don’t put the next client at risk, they must be scrubbed out and sterilized in an autoclave to kill any viruses from the previous client.

Barriers

New plastic barriers should cover your whole station for every tattoo. It should be impossible for blood or ink to get on any of the furniture or your equipment during the tattoo. That way, when you remove the plastic barriers after the tattoo, you’ll be disposing of any blood from the client. 

Disinfect your whole area

Even if you cover your station perfectly, you still need to disinfect your whole area between tattoos before tattooing a new client.

Riskiest Areas

You know to wrap your machine and the massage table. But to fully protect yourself and your client, you’ll need to keep an eye out for the places that aren’t as obvious.

Remember to wrap:

  • Your power supply’s controls
  • Wherever you’ll touch to adjust your lamp or overhead light
  • The lever on your chair or stool (if you need to move up and down)
  • Wash bottle bottles (for green soap)

Easily-forgotten items:

  • If you cover your stencil in Vaseline during the tattoo process, put a glob of it on the dental bib before you start tattooing so you don’t “double dip.”
  • If you use a deodorant stick instead of Stencil Stuff, apply the deodorant to your gloved hand before putting it on the skin, even if their skin looks perfectly clean. 
  • If you use a Sharpie to draw a design directly onto a client, do not reuse the Sharpie on another person. It’s cheaper to buy a new marker for each person than to lose your license for giving someone an infection.
  • Immediately dispose of used needles and razors in a sharps bin. Leaving them out increases your risk of a needlestick injury and exposure to a bloodborne pathogen.

A sterile setup isn't second nature. There's so much to remember before, during, and after the tattooing process. That’s why there’s a whole module in the Artist Accelerator Program about tattooing safety...and what red flags to look out for. Click here to learn more

Skin Safety

Infections, allergic reactions, and other skin problems can occur during the tattooing and healing process. Here are the most common issues to look out for:

Skin Infections

If a tattoo swells, turns red, hurts more than expected, or has pus-like drainage, then it might be infected. Infections can happen if you use equipment without properly cleaning it or if the client does not follow aftercare instructions.

The client will need to go to the doctor to get it checked out and will likely need an antibiotic to clear it up. 

Allergic Reactions

If a person is allergic to tattoo ink, their skin will turn red and swell. This can happen immediately after the tattoo or even years after. 

Minor reactions can usually be treated with a steroid cream. If it gets worse or doesn’t go away after a few weeks, the client will need to go to a doctor. 

Red and yellow ink

Tend to be the most common ink colors that cause allergic reactions.

Granulomas

A granuloma is a type of inflammation that makes a “knot” or bump in the skin. This can happen if the immune system treats a foreign material, like ink, as an “invader” and attacks it. 

These are usually treated with a steroid prescribed by a doctor.

Keloids

Keloids are caused by scars that grow beyond their natural boundaries and lead to raised bumps of scar tissue. 

They are treated with steroids and creams or, in some cases, must be surgically removed.

Keloids are hereditary.

If a client’s family member has keloids, they are more likely to get them as well. Additionally, keloids are more likely to affect people with dark skin.

Finding and Using Safe Equipment

Infections and other skin issues can be caused by using cheap equipment, especially ink. Currently, there’s no FDA-approved tattoo ink on the market. Unfortunately, this means that some tattoo companies will put cheap materials in their ink that are unsafe for skin. Additionally, there are knockoffs on the market that look like the good ink tattoo artists use, but they actually have dangerous material in them.

Where to Buy Safe Equipment

When looking for safe ink and tattooing equipment, avoid the tempting prices of Amazon. Anyone can list their products there. Shopping at places like ReelSkin, CNC Tattoo Supply, and Dragonhawk Tattoo Supply will ensure you’re getting tattoo equipment known for its safety and consistency.

When you get any equipment, make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. All the packaging and seals should look like new. Especially with ink, it’s hard to tell if a broken seal has allowed mold or bacteria to grow inside the bottle. 

Sterile Water

When you’re tattooing, you’ll need to dilute green soap and rinse your needles between colors. Always use sterile water in the tattooing process. Sink water can still contain microorganisms that cause a tattoo to get infected.

Pain and Passing Out

It’s rare that a client will be in enough pain (or anxious enough) to pass out or vomit during a tattoo, but it does happen. 

When you’re tattooing a client who looks a little too pale, offer them a break as well as something to get their blood sugar up (a snack or soda is fine).

Viruses and pathogens can pass through vomit as well as blood
If someone throws up at your station, make sure the area is not only cleaned, but fully disinfected as well.

Aftercare

Tattoos are open wounds, and it’s important that the client continues to care for the tattoo after they leave the shop to make sure it doesn’t get infected and heals safely.

You’ll need to give each client a sheet listing your aftercare instructions for the tattoo. Every artist will have slightly different instructions, but every instruction sheet should include the following:

  • Keep the tattoo clean to avoid infection
  • to settle for 48 hours
  • Avoid sun exposure while the tattoo is still healing
  • Don’t swim while the tattoo is still healing
  • Be careful that clothes don’t rub against the tattoo while healing
  • Do not pick at any scabs on the tattoo

Getting a Tattoo?

The most important consideration when getting a tattoo is the cleanliness of the shop. Here’s what you should look for when determining if a shop is a safe place to get tattooed:

  • The shop’s license (this should be displayed in the shop)
  • Up-to-date Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP) certifications (in most states, individual artists are required to go through training)
  • Clean, sterile environment. Look for plastic barriers covering the massage tables in the tattooing stations, a clean bathroom, and gloves on every artist while they’re working.
  • Social media presence/online reviews. Plenty of people will leave their opinion of the space and how they felt during their tattoo session online. 

A lot of infections from tattoos are caused by what happens after you leave the shop. Tattoos are technically open wounds, and they need special care while they’re healing. Your tattoo artist will give you a sheet explaining what to do in the weeks following your tattoo to make sure that it heals properly.

(For a general overview of what will be included on this sheet, see the “Aftercare” section above.)

What to do if you have an allergic reaction or infection: If you’re experiencing pain that seems beyond that of the tattoo or see excessive redness, inflammation, or bumps that look like granulomas or keloids, call your doctor. They’ll be able to prescribe medicine to help heal the skin.

The Info You Need to Tattoo Safely

There’s so much information about tattooing safely that tattoo artists need to know beyond the basic BBP Training. While tattooing is an art form, tattoo artists need to have the precision of a surgeon when it comes to dealing with blood and needles properly.

The Artist Accelerator Program not only teaches you how to tattoo, it also takes you through the entire setup process with an entire module devoted to hygiene so you can be prepared to tattoo safely. 

You’ll learn step-by-step how to set up and break down your tattoo station, and what order to do things in to ensure a clean and safe shop so you can be confident when dealing with clients.

Leave the guesswork behind. Tattoo - and protect - your clients like a professional.
Click here to start learning with the Artist Accelerator Program.

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain. When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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