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Revealing tattoos’ true colors

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The art of tattooing has been around for centuries — millenniums even. Tats are a popular form of self-expression and sometimes an integral part of one’s culture. But before you roll up your sleeves and hop in the chair for your latest “I Love Mom” tattoo, you might want to consider the health risks — and perhaps some “greener” options.

The most common adverse reactions to tattoos are allergic reactions to the inks and infections at tattoo sites. Certain tattoos also can cause MRI complications and there’s the risk of bloodborne illnesses being transferred through needles. (More from the Mayo Clinic here.)

So, first things first: Make sure you’re going to a reputable tattoo parlor that looks clean and organized. Discovery Fit & Health suggests asking lots of questions, including:

  • Is there an autoclave?
  • Are the needles and other materials single-use?
  • Are EPA-approved disinfectants used?
  • Do the tattoo artists wear gloves?

Don’t be a pest, but this is your health we’re talking about, so don’t be afraid to get the answers you need. For more Discovery tips on finding a good parlor, click here.

You also might want to take some time to research what’s really in those inks. Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cobalt and nickel might be adding the brightness to that flash you’ve been eyeing. (For those of you unfamiliar with tattoo terminology, a flash is the predone picture of a tattoo hanging in the parlor, as opposed to a custom one drawn up during a consultation.) According to an article on TreeHugger.com, “certain tattoo colors may present greater health risks than others.” Red pigments universally are thought to be the most problematic, “especially those that contain cadmium, iron oxides or mercury (cinnabar),” according to TreeHugger.com. “Mercury in tattoo pigments, for example, has caused allergic reactions and scarring in people and has sensitized people to mercury from other sources, such as fish or dental fillings.”

We also found out that animal byproducts are used in certain inks and carrier solutions, so if you’re a vegan contemplating a tattoo, you might want to up your research quotient and find an artist that mixes his or her own inks so you know exactly what’s going into them. Planet Green last year conducted an interview with vegan tattoo artist Brad Stevens of Fun City Tattoos in NYC. “I guess you could say that there isn’t a lot of awareness about vegan tattooing, so I wouldn’t say it’s popular, unfortunately. … But people are slowly becoming more inquisitive,” Stevens told Planet Green. For the full interview click here.

OneVeganWorld.com compiled a list of vegan tattoo parlors here.

At the other end of the spectrum, let’s say you woke up one morning and noticed a rather odd pain on your lower back. Don’t remember getting that butterfly tattoo the night before? Fortunately, you can have that bad boy removed — and you can be eco-friendly about it too. In 2008, doctors started using a new carbon dioxide-based spray in the process of tattoo removals, replacing the old staple of tetrafluoroethane, a greenhouse gas that wreaks havoc on the environment.

Tell us: What do/would you look for when planning on getting a tattoo?

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