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Tattoos, body piercings forms of self-expression

Proper care necessary

By RANDI BROCKMAN
On April 19, 2004

Tattoos and body piercing are forms of self-expression that can help people gain self-confidence but can also cause serious health problems if not properly taken care of.
Body modifications have been popular for centuries and have become increasingly so in modern societies, Beth A. Kapes says in the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, Second Edition. "In today's industrialized cultures, tattoos and piercing are a popular art form shared by people of all ages," Kapes says.
Body modification is nothing new, according to the web site for the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. "Throughout Asia we can find examples of stretched earlobes that come from wearing extremely heavy earrings," the web site says. "Until the late 19th century, the Eskimo of Alaska defined social status among groups by lip piercing."
However, the risks associated with body modification can be detrimental to a person's health, say many health professionals. "While piercing and tattooing are popular, both present definite health risks," Kapes says. "Tattoos can lead to the transmission of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B and C, and theoretically HIV, when proper sterilization and safety procedures are not followed. Body piercing also presents the risk of chronic infection, scarring, hepatitis B and C, tetanus and skin allergies to the jewelry that is used."
Infection, allergic reactions, formation of keloids - scars that grow beyond normal boundaries - and difficulty in removal are all risks associated with tattoos listed on the Food and Drug Administration and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition web site.
Another problem with tattoos cited on the FDA site is the lack of regulation of tattoo ink. "Many pigments used in tattoo inks are not approved for skin contact at all," the web site says. "Some are industrial grade colors that are suitable for printer's ink or automobile paint."
The best way to prevent infection from piercing or tattoos is not to get one in the first place, Kapes says.
If you do choose to get a tattoo or body piercing, however, it is important to do research before and understand that body modifications require attention and care, a brochure on body piercing from the ETSU health clinic says.
Go to an established business that is clean, well-lit and has its own autoclave or a sterilization machine, says Barbara Knight, a health educator at the clinic. Make sure the artist or piercer wears new latex gloves for each client and always uses sterile equipment and appropriate jewelry, she also says. "Make sure the shop where you get your piercing avoids the use of piercing guns and uses needles only once and disposes of them in a special container," Knight says. Important is the use of needles because piercing guns cannot be properly sterilized and often cause more tissue trauma than needles.
Just as important is going to a reputed professional when getting a tattoo as it is for piercing, health professionals say.
Amber, an English major at ETSU, says she should have done more research before she got a tattoo of a single eighth note on her ankle. She got her tattoo in Myrtle Beach, where it is illegal to tattoo, from a man who sold T-shirts, she says. "I don't necessarily regret it, but I wish it were either bigger or not there at all," she says.
Even if a body modification is acquired safely through a professional, some problems may still occur if the modification is not cared for properly, say health care professionals. It is necessary to avoid touching a new tattoo or piercing with dirty hands, an aftercare guide issued by Studio 13 Tattoos in Johnson City says.
Tanning beds, stretch marks, neglect and abuse can all damage tattoos, the artists at Studio 13 say, while stress, poor diet and makeup may cause problems for piercings. "Friction caused by tight clothing, rough sexual activity or excess movement in the pierced area can cause redness, keloids, discharge and lead to rejection," the aftercare guide says.
Different people experience different problems, often depending on where their body modifications are, ETSU students say. Most students interviewed reported they have few problems with their tattoos, but occasionally have difficulties with their body piercings.
"The easiest piercing I have is the P.A. [male genital piercing] because it is continually bathed in urine, urine being sterile as it leaves your body," says Lee, a graduate student in Public and Allied Health at ETSU. "My nipple ring has given me the most trouble. The ring catches on clothing at times and can become infected if not cleaned and cared for on a regular basis."
Most health problems associated with body modifications are a result of people not listening to the professionals at tattoo studios, says Joshua Renfro, a tattoo artist at Studio 13 Tattoos. If a person follows the aftercare instructions given to them by the artist, there is rarely a problem, and often any problems that occur are so minor they can be remedied by the artists rather than a doctor, he says.
Proper upkeep of a piercing is a common problem, students say. Tongue rings are a danger because many people accidentally swallow them when the balls on the barbells come loose. If the jewelry is not expelled from the body, it has the possibility of causing internal damage. "I've swallowed three tongue rings," Amber says. "I worry sometimes that they're still in me, but I've never had problems so I think I'm OK."
Another problem plaguing the newly pierced is infection paranoia. "So many people come back after being pierced thinking they have an infection, especially with navel piercings which naturally ooze at first, when really their body is just reacting normally to the jewelry," Renfro says. "If they'd listened, they'd have saved themselves a lot of worry."
Unlike tattoos, a body piercing can be undone easily and simply - by removing the jewelry. Tattoos are a great deal more permanent. Different options are available for tattoo removal, but none are 100 percent effective in making skin look exactly as it did before the tattoo. Removal treatment options range from dermabrasion, or sanding the skin, to surgical removal, which involves cutting the tattooed skin away and sewing the remaining skin back together.
The safest and quickest removal technique that is most likely to leave skin intact is laser tattoo removal, says Tri Cities Skin & Cancer Center in Johnson City. "Due to the various levels of professionalism and types of inks used in tattooing, the results and the number of treatments may vary," a brochure from Tri Cities Skin & Cancer Center says. "Typically, multiple treatments will be required and are scheduled four to eight weeks apart."
Laser treatments at Tri Cities Skin & Cancer Center cost $25 per square inch, per session; and three to six sessions are often needed. For a four-inch tattoo, laser removal would cost approximately $300 to $600. Compare that to about $150 for a four-inch lower back tattoo with moderate detailing at Studio 13 Tattoos, and it is apparent that it is considerably more expensive to remove a tattoo than to get one.
The same goes for body piercing. While it costs nothing to simply remove the jewelry, and only costs around $50 to be pierced, it can cost thousands of dollars in medical expenses if the piercing is not well taken-care-of and health problems ensue.
People must understand the risks involved with body modification before they have any work done, say professionals. Those interested in body modification should review information on both the pros and cons of the desired modification so that they are fully aware of their responsibilities as a consumer as well as the problems they may encounter if they are careless with their new tattoo or piercing, Knight says.
Also important is the understanding that getting a body modification should not be rash decision. "I do think you have to have a look that goes well with body modifications," Amber says. "They just don't look right on some people. And you better be darn sure you want what you get, because some are not easy, or cheap, to remove.


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