Dangerous Ink Causes Tattoo Nightmares

A recent outbreak of rashes in people with new tattoos has been linked to an ingredient in the ink. A total of 32 cases have been confirmed so far from Washington, Iowa and Colorado. Several manufacturers sold the infected ink, and the infection occurs even when the artists follow all necessary safety and sanitation precautions.

All of the reported cases so far are linked to a specific ink treatment that makes a “gray wash” area resembling a black and white photo. In order to achieve the effect, many tattoo artist use diluted ink; the ink is diluted with distilled water mixed with alcohol or witch hazel to reduce infection. Unfortunately, the bacteria behind the outbreak do not respond to these tactics.

About the Infection

The rash, which presents as a series of red bumps, is caused by rare bacteria distantly related to tuberculosis. This bacteria, Mycobacterium chelonae, is normally found in soil and water, but it made its way into the tattoos as part of the distilled water used to dilute the ink.

Fortunately, the rash isn’t life threatening, but it is very stubborn and requires several treatments with antibiotics to clear it up. In some cases, patients would need to have portions of their infected skin surgically removed; others could be taking an antibiotic cocktail for up to four months.

The bacteria are also very resistant to disinfectants, including alcohol, making it nearly impossible to keep out of ink. Many tattoo artists believe distilled water to be sterile, but it can carry this stubborn bacteria. Worse, there is no way to identify whether the water is tainted without taking it to a laboratory first, leaving tattoo parlors with no way of knowing whether their inks are infected.

A Nightmare for Customers

Despite some recent progress in tattoo removal procedures, tattoos remain essentially permanent. This makes the healing process especially important; if the tattoo scars or has any other damage while healing, the tattoo will be permanently ruined. Even if the patient responds well to antibiotic treatment, bacterial rashes from these infected inks can ruin tattoos. For others, whole segments of tattooed skin might need to be grafted away to deal with severe infections.

Although the ink tied to the recent outbreak has since been recalled, it’s possible that the bacteria will be present in other inks. Some tattoo parlors across the country may also still be using infected ink. Anybody planning to get a tattoo should use extreme caution as an artist’s quality and hygiene will have no impact on the ink used.

If you develop a rash after getting a tattoo, be sure to get it addressed right away and inform your doctor that it may be these rare bacteria so you can be treated immediately. These infections will not go away on their own, and they can become extremely severe if left untreated too long.


New Look Laser College is concerned about those suffering from these infections. It’s not clear if patients affected by the tainted ink will benefit from tattoo laser removal treatments or if the resulting scar tissue will cause permanent damage.

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