Safer Practices: How to Prevent a Tattoo Infection

tattoo infection

Did you know that as many as 6% of people who get tattoos experience infections?

A tattoo infection is always something you should handle with the utmost severity. In most cases, the patient just needs to take oral antibiotics to treat it.

But once an infection gets severe, things could get worse. The doctor may have to remove tattooed skin to stop a deep-skin infection. In the most extreme cases, your patient could get sepsis.

Luckily, there’s a lot you and your patient can do to prevent it. Let’s discuss sterilization practices and tattoo care. If you want to become a tattoo artist, the following tips will need to become second nature.

Signs of a Tattoo Infection

It can take two weeks to three months for a tattoo to heal. In that time, you’ll have given your patient a strict tattoo care regimen. But what are the signs that it could be infected?

If a patient has the following signs of infection, they should see a medical professional ASAP. 

Pus Draining from the Tattoo Site

This may be the most obvious sign of a tattoo infection. You may see an off-white, viscous fluid that oozes out. It may originate from one site or several.

In this case, your patient should see a doctor ASAP. 

Fungal, Bacterial, or Viral Infections

Wearing dirty shoes and socks or walking barefoot can infect tattooed skin. The same can happen with standing water, such as during a pedicure. There are many other sources that contribute to infection.

Infection symptoms include swelling, heat, redness, and in some cases, an odor. Swelling is a body’s natural defense against injuries. It brings blood and nutrients to the site of a wound. 

However, swelling and redness for more than 72 hours suggest infection. Tattoos in different areas, like the feet or ankles, may include fungal infections. Other infections may appear as red lumps, streaks, or smaller pink dots. 

Often the best way to treat bacterial or fungal infections is with topical ointments. Soaking the affected area in a water/vinegar mix may help. Whatever the case, a patient should seek medical attention. 

Hepatitis and HIV are the two biggest risks when it comes to needles. Your patient should get tested ASAP if they notice symptoms.

Allergic Reaction

Unfortunately, some experience allergies to the dye. This may manifest in small, firm bumps called granulomas. Or, your patient may have the characteristic itchiness and rash.

Whatever the case, this is very serious. They need to see the doctor ASAP. 

How to Prevent a Tattoo Infection Before and During the Procedure

Infection is always a risk with invasive procedures. However, you can reduce the risk of a tattoo infection to virtually 0 by maintaining the best sterilization practices. When you take your first tattoo course, your instructor will be very clear about how important this is.

Maintain a Sterile, Clean Environment

Everything in your tattoo parlor should be spick and span. That includes not just the tattoo area but the waiting area and bathrooms.

You need to keep close control of your parlor’s cleanliness. Treat your tattoo parlor almost like it’s an operating room. 

Sterilize all the chairs, tables, and even the floor. This goes double for your working area. If at all possible, keep your working floor separate from the waiting area.

Use strong alcohol and chemical cleaners. Disinfect anything you’ve used between patients. If you’re unsure whether you cleaned it, clean it again.

Clean Your Tattoo Gun on a Regular Basis

Anything that comes into contact with blood could carry bloodborne disease. That means the tubes and grips on your gun need rigorous cleaning between patients. Failure to do so risks a tattoo infection.

The best way to clean a gun is with an autoclave. This is a pressurized steam chamber that sterilizes your non-plastic equipment. In the tattoo community, this is the most widely accepted sterilization method.

There are other methods, but they may be more expensive. In some cases, like dry heat, they may less effective. 

Never use the same needles twice. Used needles are the primary risk factor for bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

Wear Gloves

This one should be a no-brainer. Gloves keep anything on your hands–sweat, bacteria, etc.–from transmitting to the patient. Since a tattoo opens a patient up to infection, failure to wear gloves puts them at risk.

You should wear gloves at all times when doing a tattoo. Replace them at least every two hours. Always replace gloves between patients, and use new gloves with freshly-sterilized equipment.

Only purchase medical-grade, sterile nitrile gloves. These carry a low risk of contamination.

Clean the Tattoo Site

Use rubbing alcohol beforehand to ensure the skin around the site is clean. Shave whatever hair you can, as this can hold onto contaminants. Mandate that your patients clean the area well prior to their appointment.

Make sure your stencils are clean and dust-free. Store them where they won’t be at risk of contamination.

Keep the tattoo clean all throughout the procedure. Use sterile wipes to clear away ink and blood. Use clean, sterile pads where you can set down your gun.

Post-Tattoo Sterilization

Clean the tattoo well after you finish. Take extra care when applying ointment. The plastic wrapping you apply over the ointment will be an essential defense against disease.

Remind the patient of their aftercare regimen. Stress the importance to them of caring for the tattoo until it fully heals. Warn them of the risk of infection so they take your words seriously.

Get into the habit of sterilizing everything after the patient leaves. Dispose of the needles and sterilize the chair and table. Put the necessary tattoo gun components in the autoclave for steaming.

How to Prevent a Tattoo Infection After the Procedure

It’s up to your patient to do proper tattoo care. Many patients treat it like an afterthought. You can be a powerful influence on them to stay diligent in preventing infection. 

Make it a habit to remind the patient of tattoo care at every opportunity. There is a risk of infection even with sterilized equipment. Recommend immediate medical attention in the event of infection symptoms.

Keep the Tattoo Wrapping on

Tattoo wrapping is a great way to isolate a tattoo from bacteria. A tattoo is, after all, a wound. Tattoos need bandages just as much as cuts.

The patient should keep this wrapping on for at least 2 hours, ideally 6. Removing it risks exposing their wounded skin to bacteria. The tattoo needs that time to begin the healing process.

Upon removing the wrapping, the patient should wash the tattoo. They need to use an anti-bacterial soap that has no fragrance. They should avoid scrubbing and pat the tattoo dry.

Patients should wrap their tattoo if they’re going to be in the sunlight. It also helps in the event that the tattoo rubs against clothing.

Follow Regular Cleaning Procedure

The location of a tattoo will determine what sort of tattoo care it needs. There are, however, a few things that are general across the board.

First, the patient should wash the tattoo at least 2 to 3 times per day. They should use that same anti-bacterial soap. They need to avoid scrubbing or applying pressure.

When they finish washing, they should pat dry the tattoo. A paper towel is a great idea since it’s disposable.

It’s advisable to apply ointment after every washing. This helps the tattoo to heal and protects against infections. They should spread the ointment thin and apply it gently.

Scabs may begin to form. The patient should avoid picking them. They will fall off naturally as the tattoo heals.

After the first week, the patient should begin applying moisturizer after washing. At this point, they only need to wash the tattoo once or twice per week. They should continue to pat dry.

Tell the patient to avoid itching as much as possible. This will only irritate the skin and slow healing. Moisturizer and/or balm help to fight the itching sensation.

Remind the Patient About Tattoo Care

You may have touch-up sessions with the client. Always remind them to do their tattoo care. You can find clever ways to remind them, such as with a pamphlet or an automatic email newsletter.

Look for the signs of infection. Swelling is normal for the first few days.

If you see signs of infection after the first few days, recommend medical care. You aren’t a physician, so it’s best to turn to a professional.

Take a Tattoo Course

Tattoo infection is a very real risk after getting a tattoo. Fortunately, you can mitigate it with sterilization practices and tattoo care. Always keep your parlor and equipment clean and teach your patients proper tattoo hygiene.

Learning how to become a tattoo artist takes practice. Luckily, there are experts to help you along the way. Schedule a free school tour of the Florida Tattoo Academy and learn the ins and outs of tattoo artistry.