image of a girl's calf with a tattoo

Teens and Tattoos: What Parents Need to Know

Americans love their ink. One in five have at least one tattoo, and the numbers are higher among young adults, with one-third of those under the age of 35—and 40% of millennials—wearing one. So, it’s not surprising that teenage interest in tattoos is on the rise. But before your teen makes the tattoo decision, there are several things they (and you) should know.

Tattoos carry risk

This shouldn’t be surprising. Tattoo artists use rapidly-vibrating needles to inject ink into deep layers of skin. There is quite a bit of bleeding, which raises the risk of bacterial skin infection and the transmission of blood-borne pathogens, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B/C. Of course, there are ways to minimize these risks. Tattoo parlors should be well-lit and as clean as a dentist’s office, and the artist should be a trained professional, always using brand-new sterile needles and never reusing ink from one client to the next.

Another risk teens should know about is pain. Sometimes the discomfort is mild, but other folks experience significant pain, and it can last a long time and over many sessions, depending on the detail and complexity of the tattoo. Ink allergies and large scars are possible, and ink-stained skin can hide the beginning stages of cancer, resulting in delayed diagnosis and poor outcomes.

Because of these risks, teenagers interested in getting a tattoo should talk about it with their parents. In fact, some states and cities require a parent’s signed consent before the procedure. The reason for this discussion is not to talk teens out of it, but rather walk them through risks and benefits and make an informed decision together.

Home tattoo kits are NOT recommended

Leave the art of tattooing to the professionals! The risks are real, and they are magnified with home tattoo kits. Many states require tattoo artists to complete rigorous skills and safety training. They are certified in the use of sterile technique and preventing blood-borne infections, and their businesses are routinely inspected for compliance with safety guidelines. Home tattoo kits lack any sort of oversight, and despite it being illegal in many jurisdictions to sell these kits to minors, they still make their way into the hands of teenagers. Needles are shared, skin is disfigured and serious infections result.

Tattoos are (usually) permanent

Tattoo regret is common. Teens may be tempted to stain the name of a boyfriend or girlfriend into their skin, but all too often, the ink outlasts the relationship. And while it is possible to alter a tattoo down the road, the process is not easy nor cheap, and the desired result may not be achieved. Talk with a dermatologist if you wish to remove an unwanted tattoo, and avoid do-it-yourself removal kits, which are not regulated by the FDA and may contain caustic acid.

At the end of the day

Tattoos aren’t completely bad. In fact, millions of Americans safely endure the process and love the result. However, when it comes to teenagers, risky choices can lead to unwanted consequences, and it’s best to have a parent willing to help weigh risk against benefit before making the decision.

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Mike Patrick, MD
Dr. Mike is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s and host of PediaCast, our pediatric podcast for moms and dads. Each week, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers listener questions, and delivers interviews with pediatric experts on a variety of topics. Dr Mike is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, where he serves as a faculty advisor for medical students. On the home front, he is married with two kids: a college-aged daughter and a son in high school. Prior to working in the emergency department, Dr Mike spent 10 years in a busy private practice, a time he says most prepared him for the practical advice he shares on PediaCast. Dr Mike also has an interest in roller skating. He learned to walk with skates on his feet, and his first job (age 10) was as a disc jockey at his hometown roller skating rink. He has also worked as a DJ at two radio stations, experiences which further prepared him to host our podcast!

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