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Tattoo Ink Linked To Serious Skin Infections

Along with a tattoo, this person got an infection.
A. Kalus
Along with a tattoo, this person got an infection.

If you're going to take a walk on the wild side and get a tattoo, it could get even wilder than you planned.

Federal and state health investigators have identified five clusters of skin infections linked to tattoos.

Now it's true that infection risks from tattoos are not exactly new or unknown. In fact, tattoo parlors are licensed and regulated in many jurisdictions to minimize the risk of trouble for people getting "inked."

But those precautions would have been of no help to at least 14 people infected during tattoing in New York last year. Investigators figured out the source of the germs was the ink itself. And that may be just the tip of the tattoo needle.

Yes, tattoo artists should use sterile water and needles, but that's no guarantee of safety if the colored stuff they're using to make you into a masterpiece is contaminated. "It's unfortunate that they can do everything right, but if the manufacturer doesn't supply them with sterile ink product it still results in them giving their clients infections," CDC epidemiologist Tara MacCannell tells Shots.

MacCannell, the CDC's lead investigator on the infections, is one of the authors of a report on the findings, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The bacteria that caused these outbreaks of tattoo-related infections — Mycobacterium chelonae and Mycobacterium abscessus — are common in drinking water. Chlorination doesn't faze them.

Tattoo parlors sometimes dilute ink with distilled water or water purified by reverse osmosis. Those kinds of water aren't sterile. A Colorado parlor linked to an infection used water like that.

When manufacturers use water that's not sterile, that's a whole other problem. In the case of the New York outbreak, Food and Drug Administration investigators inspected the supplier and maker of the ink involved. The ink was recalled, the FDA said. For more on FDA's view, there's a piece in the latest New England Journal of Medicine.

Why didn't the CDC's report name the ink manufacturers whose products were involved? "Our sense is that this is a problem that's fairly widespread in the industry," MacCannell says.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.