Tattoos are growing in popularity, and some people wonder whether they are safe to get during pregnancy.

A tattoo involves injecting ink into the body, and anytime a person introduces a foreign substance into the body, there is a health risk.

The dyes in inks often contain metal-based chemicals, and some contain microcontaminants, which can cause adverse reactions.

In addition, tattooing involves breaking the skin. This can sometimes cause infection.

Before deciding to get a tattoo while pregnant, it is important to understand the risks and what precautions to take. Read on to learn more.

Lady getting a tattoo on her backShare on Pinterest
A person should always ensure that a tattooist is a registered practitioner.

There has been little specific research into the safety of getting a tattoo during pregnancy, but taking some steps can help reduce the risks.

It can help to:

  • Make sure the tattooist is a registered practitioner.
  • Let the tattooist know about the pregnancy.
  • Assess the premises for cleanliness.
  • Ensure that the tattooist uses only new or sterilized equipment — including gloves and needles — for each procedure.
  • Ask what the inks contain and whether they have been recalled due to safety concerns. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website also provides this type of information.
  • Make sure all inks are sterile and unopened, possibly taken from single-use cups, and thrown away after use.
  • Ask the tattooist for contact details, in case any problems arise after the procedure.

A reputable studio and experienced tattoo artist will be happy to address any concerns about safety, cleanliness, and other aspects of the procedure.

The main concern about getting a tattoo while pregnant is the risk of infection.

However, other problems, such as a reaction to the ink, can cause pain and discomfort. Some women choose not to risk increasing their discomfort during pregnancy.

Bacterial infection

According to a 2016 review, 0.5–6.0% of people develop an infection as a result of a tattoo.

While this rate is relatively low, any infection during pregnancy — and any medication to resolve it — can potentially affect the fetus.

Following safety and hygiene guidelines can help reduce the risk of infection. However, this will not help in every case, for example, if a person reacts to microcontaminants in inks.

It is important to remember that a fresh tattoo is an open wound and therefore susceptible to infection. A person with a weakened immune system may have a higher risk.

An aggressive infection may cause:

  • chills or sweats
  • fever
  • shaking

Around the tattoo, there may be:

  • an increase of swelling and redness
  • yellow crusting
  • drainage of pus
  • worsening pain

Anyone who experiences symptoms of infection, especially a fever or chills, should receive medical attention right away. Not receiving treatment can result in a more serious problem.

A bacterial infection from a tattoo can worsen, developing into cellulitis, which can be painful. The infection may then enter the bloodstream, progressing to bacteremia and possibly sepsis, which can be life threatening.

In rare cases, an infection from a tattoo can develop into necrotizing fasciitis, which is severe and results in the death of soft tissue.

If any of these complications develop, a person requires treatment with antibiotics. Overall, doctors remain unsure whether antibiotics are safe to use during pregnancy.

There is also minimal research available on the safety of tattooing dyes in pregnant women. These dyes can trigger negative reactions.

Overall, experts do not know exactly how inks affect people, especially in the long term, and they are uncertain of the effects on fetuses and babies.

Viral infection

If the tattooist does not follow strict hygiene procedures, there can be a risk of more serious infections, such as hepatitis or HIV. A pregnant woman can transmit either condition to the baby.

Learn more about tattoos and the risk of infection.

Skin reactions

tattoo inks on a table. Share on Pinterest
Certain tattoo dyes may contain minerals that cause a skin reaction.

The components of dyes can lead to an inflammatory reaction, especially in the area of the tattoo. Different dyes contain different minerals, which give the dyes their color. Depending on the dye, the body's reaction can vary.

Having a skin reaction during pregnancy can increase discomfort. Corticosteroids can help relieve symptoms of some reactions, but these medicines may not be safe during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

Examples of minerals in dyes include:

  • Red: mercury sulfide
  • Blue: cobalt aluminate
  • Green: chromic oxide or lead chromate

Because a tattoo is permanent, the reaction can last for a long time.

Participants in studies have reported the following adverse events or reactions from tattoos:

  • swelling
  • scaling
  • itching
  • papules
  • acne
  • scarring
  • bleeding

Colored tattoos seem more likely to trigger reactions than black tattoos.

Also, the tattoo area can be more sensitive to sunlight than the rest of the skin, and exposure to sunlight can lead to stinging, itching, pain, swelling, and redness. The risk of this reaction appears to vary, according to the color of the ink, and it likely results from dye ingredients.

Ink safety

According to the FDA, some tattoo inks contain pigments used in car paint and printer cartridges. The FDA note that they have "not approved any pigments for injection into the skin for cosmetic purposes."

They also caution that even a product that is sealed or marked "sterile" may not be safe.

Anyone who wants a tattoo should consider:

Permanence: A tattoo is a permanent change to the body. Removal is an option, but experts are still unsure of the effects of ink dispersing in the body.

Shape and location: The body changes shape during pregnancy, and stretch marks can remain on the hips, thighs, and abdomen. These can affect the appearance of a tattoo.

Epidural during labor: An epidural can provide pain relief during delivery, and it is unclear whether having a tattoo on the lower back poses a risk during this procedure. Experts have expressed concern, but researchers advise that anyone who needs an epidural should have one.

Underlying conditions: Anyone with a condition that affects their immune system or ability to heal, such as HIV or diabetes, should check with a doctor before getting a tattoo. These people may have a higher risk of infection.

Here, learn more about living with a weakened immune system.

What about henna?

In some cultures, people apply henna tattoos to the belly during the final trimester. Henna is a natural dye that stains the skin for up to 4 weeks.

However, black henna contains para-phenylenediamine, which can damage the skin. It can also cause a significant reaction, with blisters and possibly scarring.

Henna tattoos may be safe during pregnancy, but the henna should not be black.

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It is not advisable to get a new tattoo while breastfeeding.

The risks of getting a tattoo while breastfeeding are unclear. However, problems may arise if the breastfeeding mother needs to use antibiotics.

Also, in very care cases, it is possible to pass on hepatitis or HIV to a breastfeeding infant, if the nipples crack or bleed.

Some healthcare providers have raised concerns about pigments or infection passing through the milk to the infant.

As a result, according to one publication, medical opinion "appears to favor not obtaining a new tattoo during breastfeeding."

There is not enough evidence to say whether it is a good idea to get a tattoo during pregnancy.

People can take precautions to minimize the risk of complications, but there is no guarantee against infection and other problems.

Speak with a doctor before getting a tattoo during pregnancy. Waiting until after the baby is born and breastfeeding is over can ensure that any possible complications of a tattoo will not affect the child.

Q:

If I ask my doctor about getting a tattoo during pregnancy, what will they probably say?

A:

It is best to wait to get a tattoo until after pregnancy and breastfeeding. This will also give you more time to consider whether getting a tattoo is the right decision for you.

Owen Kramer, MD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.