The Risk of Bacterial Infection After Tattooing
A systematic review of the literature
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Background: Tattooing is a globally growing trend. Overall prevalence among adults in industrialized countries is around 10–20%. Given the high and increasing numbers of tattooed people worldwide, medical and public health implications emerging from tattooing trends require greater attention not only by the public, but also by medical professionals and health policy makers.
Methods: We performed a systematic review of the literature on tattoo-associated bacterial infections and bacterial contamination of tattoo inks. Furthermore, we surveyed tattoo inks sampled during an international tattoo convention in Germany to study their microbial status.
Results: Our systematic review identified 67 cases published between 1984 and 2015, mainly documenting serious bacterial infectious complications after intradermal deposition of tattoo inks. Both local skin infections (e.g. abscesses, necrotizing fasciitis) and systemic infections (e.g. endocarditis, septic shock) were reported. Published bacteriological surveys showed that opened as well as unopened tattoo ink bottles frequently contained clinically relevant levels of bacteria indicating that the manufactured tattoo product itself may be a source of infection. In our bacteriological survey, two of 39 colorants were contaminated with aerobic mesophilic bacteria.
Conclusions: Inappropriate hygiene measures in tattoo parlors and non-medical wound care are major risk factors for tattoo-related infections. In addition, facultative pathogenic bacterial species can be isolated from tattoo inks in use, which may pose a serious health risk.
Body modifications including tattoos are a globally growing trend. According to recent surveys the overall prevalence of tattoos among adults in industrialized countries is around 10–20% (1). Since there are currently no public health reporting requirements for infectious complications associated with tattooing, the actual incidence and prevalence of infections following tattooing remain largely unknown in many countries, which is why scientifically sound risk quantification is not possible.
In compliance with the International Classification of Procedures in Medicine (ICPM) tattooing represents a surgical procedure with its own Operations and Procedures (OPS) code number (5–890.0; see OPS version 2015). However, tattooing is almost never performed by medical doctors and can therefore not be epidemiologically monitored by use of medical databases.
A specific diagnosis code for diseases following non-medically indicated cosmetic surgery was introduced in Germany in 2008. However, this comprises diverse procedures such as a range of aesthetic operations, along with tattoos and piercings. Since there is currently no ICD (International Classification of Diseases) code that would explicitly and specifically associate infectious diseases with the procedure of tattooing, it proved impossible to derive a reliable estimate of infection rates from data collected by German health insurance companies. Based on published surveys, between 0.5% and 6% of the people with a tattoo experienced infectious complications after being tattooed (2–6).
Considering the increasing numbers of tattooed people, tattooing may thus represent a significant public health risk (7, 8). Therefore, physicians should be aware of atypical clinical presentations of tattoo-related infections that may lead to rare but severe adverse outcomes. Tattooing results in traumatization of the skin that may facilitate microbial pathogens to pass the epidermal barrier causing local skin infections. In most cases such mild-to-moderate superficial skin infections remain unreported since they are self-limiting or easily treated with proper aftercare, local disinfection measures and/or antibiotic therapy. However, as tattoo needles punch through the epidermis, thereby coming into contact with blood and lymph vessels in the dermal layer, bacteria may cause systemic infections by entering the blood stream. The severity of infection depends on the virulence of the pathogen, the immune status of the person being tattooed and underlying diseases.
To assess hazards and disease outcomes related to bacterial infections as a consequence of tattooing, a systematic review of the literature and bacteriological investigation of inks was performed.
We conducted an electronic literature search in MEDLINE (PubMed), Scopus, Web of Science, BIOSIS Previews, EMBASE and Google Scholar for eligible studies addressing
- bacterial infections, not related to mycobacteria, associated with a recent tattoo, and
- tattoo inks contaminated with bacteria other than mycobacteria.
A flow chart of the selection process is presented in the Figure (see eBox 1 for a detailed description of the methodology).
A total of 39 samples of tattoo inks originating from opened vials that were randomly collected by local health inspectors during the 10th International Tattoo Convention in Reutlingen, Germany, were analyzed. Enumeration and detection of aerobic mesophilic bacteria (i.e., aerobic bacteria that grow best at moderate temperatures) were performed in accordance with validated guidelines for the microbiological analysis of cosmetic products (EN ISO 21149:2009), as was the detection of specified and non-specified microorganisms including Escherichia (E.) coli, Pseudomonas (P.) aeruginosa, and Staphylococcus (S.) aureus (EN ISO 18415:2011). Isolates from contaminated samples were sub-cultured for further identification by Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (MALDI-ToF MS) and 16S rRNA gene sequencing.
Our initial literature search yielded 1379 records, of which 1345 were excluded, mainly because they described non-infectious cases, non-bacterial infections, non-clinical studies or were summary reports of already considered cases (Figure). Two systematic reviews of tattoo-associated skin infections caused by non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) were published quite recently (9, 10). Since our survey revealed only four additional reports describing six new cases (e1–e4), mycobacterial infections were excluded from our data analysis and interpretation because of a lack of novelty.
We identified 67 cases of non-mycobacterial infections reported in 27 publications published between 1984 and 2015 (11–37), mainly documenting serious bacterial infectious complications after intradermal deposition of tattoo inks (Table 1, eTable). Since the CDC case series (16) presented only aggregated data, those 34 cases were omitted from the statistical analysis and discussed separately. Most patients were male (75%). The mean age was 28 years (range: 0–48 years). Most cases were reported from the United States (n=12), Europe (n=11) and New Zealand (n=5). The number of reports increased over time and 9 out of 11 cases from Europe and 10 out of 13 cases from North America were published between 2011 and 2015, which might indicate an increased awareness. S. aureus was reported as an etiological agent in 81% of the cases. Long-term antibiotic therapy with a mean duration of six weeks (range 1–15 weeks) was the treatment of choice in 21 reports, which provided this type of information. Two patients died due to complications related to their infections (11, 15).
Bacteriological contamination of tattoo inks
Since only seven reports on contaminated tattoo inks have been published so far (Table 2) we officially collected 39 tattoo inks in use during an international tattoo convention in Germany, 2014, and determined their microbial status to specify the risk of infection associated with the subepidermal application of ink deposits. A total of 19 inks (49%) were claimed to be sterile/sterilized on the label. Fifteen (38%) contained benzisothiazolinone as a preservative, three additionally contained methylisothiazolinone and phenoxyethanol. Twenty-three products used alcohol as a solvent, in most cases isopropyl alcohol. Among the 39 colorants investigated, two (5%) were contaminated with aerobic mesophilic bacteria (~107 bacteria per gram of ink). Both products were free of preservatives. In one sample various Pseudomonas species (P. pseudoalcaligenes, P. stutzeri, P. fluorescens group) and Delftia spp. (D. lacustris/tsuruhatensis group) were detected. The other sample was contaminated with P. aeruginosa, Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, Agrobacterium tumefaciens/Rhizobium sp. and bacteria belonging to the Staphylococcus warneri/pasteuri group. The bacterial genera identified were largely in line with those described in the literature (Table 2).
Infectious complications from tattoos include superficial infections such as impetigo, deep bacterial skin infections presenting as erysipelas or cellulitis and systemic infections which may lead, in very rare cases, to life-threatening complications due to endocarditis, septic shock, and multi-organ failure (38). Acute pyogenic skin infections or bacteremia usually occur within a few days after placement of the tattoo and predominantly involve methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) or methicillin-sensitive S. aureus (MSSA), Streptococcus spp., and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
Nontuberculous mycobacterial (NTM) skin infections
In recent years, a considerable number of reports describing cases of nontuberculous mycobacterial infections following tattooings have been published (9, 10). Conaglen et al. identified a total of 25 reports describing 71 confirmed and 71 probable tattoo-related infections with NTM such as M. chelonae, M. haemophilum, and M. abscessus (10). NTM infections typically occurred in healthy individuals within weeks to months after tattooing and manifested as localized cutaneous infections presenting as papules, pustules and nodules at the site of the tattoo. Often, lesions were restricted to a single colored part of the tattoo. The most frequently postulated route of transmission was the dilution of tattoo ink with non-sterile water. With several months of antibiotic treatment (either clarithromycin alone or in combination with quinolones) outcomes of these long-lasting infections tended to be good.
Other bacterial infectious complications
Seven cases followed traditional Samoan tattooing in previously healthy, young men from New Zealand, Australia and the USA (12, 15, 21, 23, 24, 27). Typically, patients initially developed erysipelas, multiple subcutaneous abscesses and necrotizing soft tissue infections localized in the tattooed skin area which led to severe polymicrobial septicemia, septic shock and life-threatening organ failure. In one of these cases, cutaneous diphtheria caused by a toxigenic strain of Corynebacterium diphtheriae (var. gravis) has been reported (23, 24). However, it could well be that S. aureus was the primary pathogen in this case.
One patient died of acute heart failure as a consequence of septic shock following a ritual Samoan tattooing (15). In this case, the used ink and a natural yellow pigment (turmeric) showed high contamination with Gram-positive bacteria. Most patients recovered but required prolonged hospitalization with intravenous antibiotic treatment. Inadequate cleaning and sterilization of tattoo equipment as well as inappropriate infection control measures and the more invasive procedures were supposed to be the main risk factors of traditional tattooing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have documented a series of 34 cases of MRSA infections among recipients of tattoos from 13 unlicensed tattooists in the USA in 2004–2005 (16). The majority of patients were white males without underlying diseases or risk factors. Most infections were mild to moderate (erysipelas, bacterial pustules, and abscesses) and wound healing could be improved with surgical drainage and/or oral antibiotics. Four patients developed bacteremia and required hospitalization for intravenous vancomycin treatment. Suboptimal infection control procedures of unlicensed tattooists were identified as the major risk factor.
Similar outcomes and risk factors for three cases of tattoo-associated S. aureus infections were described in a recent report (22). In at least one of the cases ink contamination may have caused the infection, since the distribution of the infectious lesions was linked to a single color. Two outbreaks of community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) and Panton-Valentine Leukocidin (PVL)-positive MSSA skin and soft tissue infections at a correctional facility in the USA and in a prison in France have been attributed to unhygienic tattooing conditions (17, 30).
Rare complications of tattoo-related infections caused by S. aureus are the toxic shock syndrome (TSS) caused by toxigenic strains of S. aureus (35) and the staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSSS) (37).
Five cases of presumably tattoo-related infective endocarditis were found in the literature. Prior heart disease was noticed as a risk factor in four of them. Etiologic agents were human commensals such as S. aureus (14, 28), S. lugdunensis (18), and Moraxella lacunata (19). Typically, symptoms started within a week after tattoo placement with recurring episodes of high fever and dyspnea.
Tattoos are generally accepted to be an initial entrance door for bacteria into the human body, but the clinical pictures of possible tattoo-related infectious diseases can be more heterogeneous and the etiologic agents more diverse than actually expected (Table 1, eTable).
Contamination of tattoo inks as a potential source of infection
Although most licensed tattoo parlors have implemented hygiene measures, bacterial infections emerge. Inappropriate infection control is often blamed to be responsible for tattoo-related infections. Pathogens may originate from surfaces in the tattoo studio environment and from inadequately sterilized instruments or other equipment, or from the commensal or transient skin flora of the tattooed person and the tattooist alike. Tattoo wounds may also become infected during the healing process due to inadequate wound care or personal hygiene. In addition, the applied colorant itself might have gotten extrinsically contaminated during usage or intrinsically during production. Published bacteriological surveys (e5–e11) show that opened (used) as well as unopened (unused) tattoo ink bottles frequently contain considerable numbers of bacteria indicating that the manufactured tattoo product itself may be a risk factor in tattoo-related infections (Table 2). Contamination rates beyond 10% are not unusual for tattoo inks. In general, lower bacterial counts of bacilli or other spore-forming bacteria are found in unopened ink containers (102–103 colony forming units per gram ink [cfu/g]), whereas high bacterial loads are common for opened bottles (103–109 cfu/g). From opened bottles, Gram-negative aerobic bacteria such as P. aeruginosa were isolated in high numbers (e6). These ubiquitous germs (?) are able to colonize virtually all environments including soil, tap and marine waters, as well as the human skin. Yet Gram-positive bacteria such as Staphylococcus spp. that are part of the commensal flora of the human skin can also be found in opened as well as unopened bottles (e8). Most of the bacterial contaminants were not highly virulent though, but instead opportunistic pathogens (e5–e11).
Many of the bacterial genera that have been associated with tattoo-related infections are in accordance with those found in bacteriological surveys of opened tattoo ink bottles (see Tables 1 and 2, eTable). Bottling of ink solutions from stock bottles to smaller non-sterile cups recurrently contaminated during the placement of a tattoo represents only one but certainly a highly likely source of contamination, in particular, when the top of the stock bottle repeatedly gets into contact with the cup. Another common source is the mixing of colors and dilution of inks by the tattoo artist under non-sterile conditions or with non-sterile diluents (e.g., tap water or “distilled”, but not germ-free water). As a consequence, bacteria may readily reach infective doses (>103 to 108 cfu/g, see Table 2) in tattoo products, especially when they are inadequately preserved (e6, e8, e10). Hence, tattoo inks may be underrated as a potential source of bacterial infection and harmonized legal requirements for tattooing services as well as mandatory quality measures are needed not only for tattoo parlors but also for producers of tattoo inks (see eBox 2 on regulatory aspects).
With respect to the considerable popularity of tattoos and yet insufficient regulation of hygiene measures in both the production of tattoo inks and the process of tattooing, infection risks associated to this kind of body art should be recognized as a potential public health concern (2, 3, 8, 38). Since consumers may not be aware of infection risks from tattooing and tattoo artists complying with hygiene guidelines cannot easily be identified, statutory rules are urgently needed for consumer protection. Physicians should be aware of the tattoo-related complications, educate patients about potential health risks and provide advice to those with predisposing conditions regarding the need of preventive measures such as specific follow-up care. If indicated patients shall be asked to refrain from tattoos which may help to prevent sequelae.
This study has been financially supported by intramural grants of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
Conflict of interest statement
Prof. Al Dahouk has written a medical expertise report regarding this paper's subject matter.
All other authors declare that no conflict of interest exists.
Manuscript received on 2 December 2015, revised version accepted on
8 June 2016
Prof. Dr. med. Sascha Al Dahouk
Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR)
Diedersdorfer Weg 1
12277 Berlin, Germany
eBoxes and eTable:
Project committee tattooing services: Safe practice and hygiene requirements. https://standards.cen.eu/ (last accessed 15 August 2016).
Dr. rer. nat. Dieckmann, Ph. D. Boone, Dr. rer. nat. Hammerl, Prof. Dr. med., M.Sc. Al Dahouk
Regional Public Health Office, Department for Infection Control, Reutlingen: Stefan Brockmann
University Hospital Würzburg, Department of Dermatology, Venereology and Allergology, Würzburg: Prof. Dr. med. Dr. rer. nat. Kolb-Mäurer, Prof. Dr. med. Goebeler
German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), Department of Chemical and Product Safety, Berlin:
Prof. Dr. med. Dr. rer. nat. Dr. med. habil. Luch
RWTH Aachen University Hospital, Clinic for Gastroenterology, Metabolic Disorders and Internal Intensive Medicine (Medical Clinic III), Aachen: Prof. Dr. med., M.Sc. Al Dahouk
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