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Is It True That Tattoos Can Increase Your Risk of Getting Skin Cancer?

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It is estimated that 25% of Americans ages 18 to 50 have tattoos. While tattooing is not a new concept and has been happening for thousands of years, tattoos have become part of mainstream culture and are increasing in popularity, mainly among younger generations. With more people getting tattoos, it is important to address the possible health risks that may come along with this practice.

I want a tattoo; what should I look for?

The best thing you can do before getting a tattoo is to do your research. It seems simple to Google what you want, find the nearest tattoo studio near you and then schedule an appointment. But did you consider if the tattoo shop was clean? Do they sterilize their equipment, or how do you take care of your new ink after your session to reduce infections? Here are a few safety tips to follow when deciding who to go to for a tattoo:

  • Thoroughly research a tattoo studio or artist: After finding a tattoo artist whose designs you like, confirm they and the studio they tattoo out of have the proper license. Check with your city or state health department for more information on local licensing and regulations, as this can vary by state. Also, look at the tattoo artist’s online reviews to learn more about other people’s experiences with them.
  • Pick your tattoo placement: This is entirely up to you, but you may want to stick to an area of the body that may be less painful, like the forearm. Consider avoiding places like the hands and feet as they tend to fade faster and require more touch-ups. Also, tattoos can get distorted with weight gain, so keep that in mind if you are getting one on an area that may be more prone to fat buildup.
  • Ensure the area is prepped: The area of the body you have chosen for your tattoo should be cleaned with antiseptic to prevent any bacteria on the skin surface from entering the tattoo.
  • Know the safety protections: Inspect if the artist is wearing gloves and using properly sterilized equipment. Make sure the tattoo artist removes the needle and tubes from sealed packages before your procedure begins.
  • The CDC also recommends that tattoo artists only use sterilized ink, and they should never use inks that are not intended for tattoos, such as drawing ink or even printer ink, or use non-sterile water to rinse equipment.

How do I take care of my tattoo?

Taking care of your tattoo is just as important as the research. Follow this advice and suggested products for proper tattoo aftercare.

After receiving your tattoo, your ink should be wrapped in plastic and may need to stay on for several days, depending on the size. You can remove the plastic on day two or three, but ask your artist for specifics.

  • Touch your tattoo with clean hands only.
  • Clean the area daily with warm water and a gentle cleanser.
  • Only wash your tattoo with antibacterial soap and pat dry.
  • Apply recommended ointments from a tattoo artist to keep the area moist (shea butter, lotions, etc.)
  • Don't overmedicate the area
  • Let it breathe, don't pick or scratch it.
  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure, and wear sunscreen. Sun exposure can cause the tattoo's colors to fade and may also burn your skin and scar it from sun damage.
  • Avoid swimming or going in hot tubs
  • Be gentle and keep your skin moisturized

Know the risks

Tattoos are permanent marks or designs on your skin and are created by inserting pigments through small needle pricks into the skin’s top layer. It is well-known that getting tattoos can place a person at risk for infection or transmission of bloodborne diseases like HIV, hepatitis B, tetanus and sepsis, if the equipment is not properly sterilized. But can it also cause other diseases like cancer? While more research needs to be done, studies suggest that some tattoo ink in the United States could contain cancer-causing chemicals. There is also concern that tattoo inks could potentially hinder the ability of doctors to identify skin cancers within tattoos.

The combination of needles, injection of ink and UV exposure could increase the risk of skin cancers. The inks used for tattoos are unregulated in the United States, resulting in products with unknown elements. For example, many commercially used inks still use titanium, barium, aluminum and copper.

According to the Current Oncology Journal, black and red ink were associated with higher risk and the deadliest skin cancers, including:

  • Melanoma - Often the deadliest form of skin cancer usually develops from a mole or appears as a new, dark spot on the skin.
  • Basal cell carcinomas - The most common type of skin cancer and usually develops in people with fair skin, but people of color can also get this type of skin cancer.
  • Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans- A rare soft tissue tumor that is slow growing and diagnosed by a skin biopsy. The cause of dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans is not clearly understood.

The coloring of tattoo ink can also make it difficult for doctors to identify skin cancers. Cutaneous malignancies, which is cancer that begins in cells that form on the outer layer of the skin, can appear as firm red bumps, red patches or an open sore. Having tattoos can make it harder to detect changes or abnormalities in a person’s skin or moles, so it is important to get regular skin checks from your doctor.

Why should I get my skin checked?

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. People with and without tattoos should maintain regular skin checks and report any new lesions or concerning changes to their skin or moles to their doctor. Those at higher risk should have annual skin cancer screenings. High-risk features include:

  • Family history of Melanoma (two or more relatives)
  • Skin that freckles or burns easily.
  • People with blue or green eyes or blonde or red hair. People with these traits naturally have less melanin pigment, they also have less protection from UV radiation and are more vulnerable to the sun.
  • Older people

The most important risk factors for developing skin cancer are aging and sun exposure. Reducing sun exposure can help keep your skin healthy and lower the chances of skin cancer. Wearing sun-protective clothing and sunscreen are the best habits people can use daily to prevent skin cancer.

Tattoos may be cool but know the possible dangers and the safest way to receive them.

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