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Most people may not consider getting a tattoo to be a risky behaviour in relation to blood-borne viruses – trendy, edgy or artsy yes, but few consider it to be risky. In most cases tattooing is actually safe. If you have money and can go to a registered parlour, there is usually nothing to worry about. When you don’t have access to hundreds of dollars and you can get a backyard tattoo for a small portion of the price, or you are going to travel overseas for your tattoo there can be a much higher risk. The difference is that backyard tattoos or tattoos in some overseas countries, have the potential to give you a blood-borne virus like hepatitis C.

Before getting a tattoo, you need to consider the law. There are age restrictions in place to protect young people from getting unwanted or regrettable tattoos. In Western Australia it is against the law to:

  • tattoo or brand any part of the body of a person under 16 years of age
  • tattoo or brand any part of the body of a person aged over 16 years of age (but under 18 years of age) without the written consent of their parent/guardian for a specific tattoo or brand on a specific part of the person’s body.

An operator can go to jail or be fined for breaking the law and illegally branding or tattooing a minor.

Why is tattooing risky?

When you get a tattoo, ink gets injected under your skin. The tattoo gun has a small needle on the tip that punctures your skin, injecting ink underneath to create a long lasting image. The needle puncturing your skin provides a point of entry to your bloodstream. Blood-borne viruses are transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Therefore, the process of a needle puncturing your skin makes it possible to transmit hepatitis C through unsterile tattooing.

How can I reduce the risk?

Go to a registered parlour. There are very strict regulations in place that professional parlours must follow to ensure the safety of their customers.

You should ask your tattoo artist what procedures they use for sterilising their equipment. Do they have an autoclave machine? How often do they sterilise their equipment?

To reduce your risk, make sure that your tattoo artist uses infection-control procedures including:

  1. Washing their hands before and after the procedure
  2. A new, sterile needle (opened in front of you)
  3. Disposable ink pots
  4. Wearing surgical gloves
  5. A new razor (if they use one)
  6. Immediately disposing of used items (gloves, ink pots, swabs, cotton wool, paper towels etc) which have come in contact with blood and cannot be sterilised
  7. Throwing out used ink and not putting it back in the container
  8. Sterilising surfaces and areas used to work on

Remember, you have the right to ask the tattoo artist about their use of infection-control procedures before you get your tattoo.

Although unsterile tattooing is a risk for transmitting blood-borne viruses like hepatitis C, in most cases tattooing is actually safe. This is a result of proper infection-control procedures being followed. So, if you are considering a tattoo make sure you do your homework before you settle on just any parlour or artist. If you decide to get your tattoo done anywhere but a registered parlour in Australia, remember they may not follow all the correct infection-control procedures and there can be a much higher risk of transmitting a blood-borne virus.

If you think you may have been at risk of coming in contact with a blood-borne virus from unsterile tattooing, you should ask your doctor for a hepatitis C blood test.

Written by Bianca Fish, Health Promotions Officer