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Tattoos and Lymphedema

A tattoo on lymphedema

damaged tissue can be risky. 


before getting a tattoo for decorative purposes on lymphedema effected tissues, carefully consider these potential side effects.

  • Allergic reactions. Tattoo dyes, especially red dye, can cause allergic skin reactions with an itchy rash that can continue as long as years after you have acquired the tattoo.
  • Skin infections.Tattoos can lead to a localized bacterial infection. These infections are characterized by redness, swelling, pain with a pus-like drainage.
    If lymphedema is present, these infections may be very severe.
  • Other skin problems. Sometimes bumps known as granulomas form around red tattoo ink.
    Tattooing can also produce raised areas due to an overgrowth of keloid (scar) tissue.
  • MRI complications. Rarely, tattoos or permanent makeup can cause swelling or burning in the affected areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exams.
    In some cases, such as when a person with permanent eyeliner has an MRI of the eye, tattoo pigments may interfere with the quality of the resulting MRI image.
  • Bloodborne diseases. If the equipment used to create your tattoo is contaminated with infected blood, you are at risk of contracting bloodborne diseases. These conditions include hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus, and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS.)


Tattoo ink consists of pigment (coloring material) and a carrier, such as alcohol, that causes the ink to flow to form the desired image. The carrier may consist of a single substance or a mixture. The purpose of the carrier is to keep the pigment evenly distributed in a fluid matrix, to inhibit the growth of pathogens, to prevent clumping of pigment, and to aid in application to the skin.

  • Among the safest, and most commonly used ingredients to make the liquid carrier are  ethyl alcohol  (ethanol), purified water, propylene glycol, or glycerin.
  • Among the most toxic and hazardous substances that are used to make the liquid carrier are  denatured alcohols , or other alcohols such as methyl alcohol, methanol. or a form of isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), or aldehydes, such as formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde.


Premixed inks are considered to be as safe, or safer, than inks that are mixed by the tattoo artist; however, even with quality pigments and recommended carriers there are still potential health hazards associated with tattoo inks. These hazards include:

  • Alcohol makes skin more permeable. This includes when alcohol is used in the ink or to disinfect the skin's surface, it allows more chemicals to cross into the bloodstream than it ordinarily would.
  • Additional adverse effects include allergic reactions, scarring, and extreme sensitivity to sunlight.


The U.S. Food and Drug administration, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list the following risks concerning tattoos.

  • Infection. Even with the use of a new needle, tattooing equipment is still difficult to sterilize. When equipment is not sterile is used, there is an increased the risk of transmitting bloodborne disease such as hepatitis or HIV. Because of these infection risks, the American Association of Blood Banks requires a one-year wait between getting a tattoo and donating blood.
  • Allergic reactions. Although allergic reactions to tattoo pigments are rare; however when they do occur, they may be particularly troublesome because the pigments can be hard to remove. Occasionally, people can develop an allergic reaction to tattoos they have had for years.
  •  MRI complications. There have been reports of people with tattoos or permanent makeup who experienced swelling or burning in the affected areas when they underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Removal problems. The most common problem with tattoos is customer dissatisfaction. Despite advances in laser technology, removing a tattoo is a painstaking process, usually involving several treatments and considerable expense.


When considering a tattoo, particularly in tissues affected by lymphedema, or at risk of developing it, the client should seriously consider the above concerns plus these additional warnings:

  • Anything that involves a needle stick into an affected limb is an invitation to infection. This risk is even greater when having a procedure performed that involves multiple needle sticks and in which the sterility of the equipment cannot be guaranteed.
  • Tattooing adds stress on the lymphatic system because 90% of the dye goes into the lymph nodes and stays there.
  • The swelling of lymphedema distorts the tattooed image. The resulting image may be very unsatisfactory.
  • The laser treatments required to remove a tattoo could be harmful to tissues that are already damaged by lymphedema and can be very expensive.


© LymphNotes.com 2014.This information does not replace the advice of a qualified health care professional.

Got a question or comment? Post in the 'Living With Lymphedema' forum.
Category: Living With Lymphedema Updated: 2014-10-23


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