December 2, 2020

I Have Diabetes. Can I Get a Tattoo?

Body art and managing tattoo risks

woman with tattoos on arm

All tattoos​ tell a story, whether it be something incredibly meaningful or just a spur-of-the-moment decision you had on a random Tuesday. ​​

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When you make that decision to get inked, you may not think about the medical risks right away. But if you have diabetes, getting a tattoo may pose unique risks.

“When you have diabetes, you really have to consider the physical consequences of everything you do,” says endocrinologist Shirisha Avadhanula, MD.

How does my blood sugar affect risks associated with tattoos?

To get a tattoo, the skin is pierced between 50 and 3,000 times a minute by a tattoo machine.

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“Your skin is a barrier that protects you from infections,” says Dr. Avadhanula. “Getting a tattoo breaks this barrier. A tattoo affects the dermis, or the second layer of skin, because the cells of the dermis are more stable than the first layer, or epidermis.”

Piercing skin at this level poses unique risks to people with diabetes. If your blood sugars are not in good control, your immune system is also affected — putting you at even higher risk for infection and potential difficulty fighting it off. If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you may have a significantly increased risk of developing an infection, too.

Tattooing is under strict hygiene rules from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of this risk of infection. The needles must only be used once and the tattoo artist must wear gloves while doing the work. According to the FDA, among the most severe infections that can be transmitted is hepatitis.

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If you have considered the risk, and still want to get a tattoo, remember to do the following:

  • Talk to your doctor first. It’s important to discuss your particular case with your doctor so they can assess your individual risk. Involving your doctor is even more important as the American Diabetes Association, which would normally offer guidance, has issued no official position statement at this time about tattoos.
  • Make sure your blood sugar is in good control. This means blood glucose tests and hemoglobin A1C, or an index of average blood glucose for the previous three to four months, need to be in the target range. Your hemoglobin A1C should be less than 7%.
  • Get your tattoo in a place that isn’t susceptible to infection. Feet, shins, ankles and butt are places that can have poor blood circulation, which in turn can make them more susceptible to infection.
  • Make sure you are going to a reputable place. Sometimes it’s not so clear which places are truly reputable and licensed, especially when there are thousands to choose from in the United States alone. You can find a good place by asking for references and checking with the Better Business Bureau for any complaints filed. Don’t be afraid to give them a call and ask questions about their equipment and sanitation practices.

“By taking the right precautions, you can be sure that you are making an informed decision about tattoos and risks involved when you have diabetes,” she says. “Taking the time to involve your doctor could prevent future problems. Body art is beautiful, but a healthy body is even more beautiful.”​

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