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A parent’s guide to tattoos and body piercing

Remember when you made fashion statements by wearing micro miniskirts or having spiked or purple hair? Today’s trends—tattoos and body piercing—are different because of two important factors: They’re permanent and they carry serious health risks with lifelong implications.

Although piercing earlobes has been mainstream for decades, no body part seems off limits today as navels, eyebrows, nostrils and tongues have become popular places for jewelry. And nearly everybody seems to have a tattoo, especially celebrities and sports heroes. Whether you’re agreeable to the idea of body art, dead-set against it or somewhere in between, you should address these questions:

Why does your child want the tattoo or piercing?

Is it simply a form of self-expression or is it the shock value that’s attractive? Does your child feel he or she needs this to fit in with peers? Is it an initiation of some form?

How will your child feel about it in the future?

Tattoos are meant to be permanent. Removal—through surgery, dermabrasion or lasers—is imperfect and leaves a scar. Discuss the effect the tattoo or piercing may have when applying for a job. Piercings often heal over when jewelry is removed, but older holes may not close as well.

What are the potential health risks?

Both tattooing and piercing involve puncturing the skin, one of the body’s main protective barriers, which poses a risk for:

  • blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis C or B, tetanus, tuberculosis or HIV, from contaminated equipment
  • scars, bumps, called granulomas, and keloids (large, rigid overgrowths of scar tissue)
  • bacterial infections that cause redness, warmth, swelling and puslike drainage
  • allergic reactions from tattoo inks or jewelry made from nickel or brass
  • oral complications, such as bacteria from piercings in the tongue, lip, mouth and nose and damage to teeth and gums from mouth jewelry

How does your child stay safe?

If you decide to allow a tattoo or piercing, take these precautions to protect your child’s health:

  • Check immunizations. Make sure all vaccinations, especially hepatitis and tetanus, are up to date.
  • Seek a sanitary facility. Every shop should have a sterilizing machine called an autoclave to sanitize equipment. Be sure you see the artist or piercer wash his or her hands, wear new latex gloves and remove supplies (sterile needles, tubes, pigments and trays) from sealed packaging.
  • Insist on proper equipment. Don’t allow piercing guns, which can’t be sterilized adequately and may damage surrounding skin. Use jewelry made from surgical-grade steel, titanium, 14- or 18-karat gold or niobium.
  • Follow-up with after care. Tattooed skin should be washed regularly with soap and water, moisturized and protected from the sun. Piercings will need a special medicated cleanser or mouth rinse and jewelry rotation. Avoid alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and ointments.