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Today, we'll explore whether an old artform that's trendy - is safe.

What was once a form of expression reserved just for soldiers and sailors is mainstream. People from all walks of life now sport tattoos.

More than 10 million Americans have at least one. Those aged 25 to 29 make up the largest segment of the tattooed population.

The question is: are they safe?

Tattoos are created using an electric device that looks and sounds a lot like a dentist's drill. When the needle penetrates your skin about one millimetre, ink is deposited into the dermal layer, where it remains for life.

Like anything else involving needles, getting a tattoo is not without some risk. The artist must follow universal precautions to prevent illnesses.

It's vital that everything is sanitary. Insist on single-use and sterile needles, inks, cups and gloves. Make sure packaging is opened in front of you. And, make sure reusable equipment and materials are sterilized in an autoclave.

If precautions aren't met, tattooing can transmit life threatening diseases including HIV, TB, hepatitis and syphilis.

The pigments used in tattoos are yet another issue. Commercial ink manufacturers don't have to reveal their contents. Plus, some artists mix their own colors, so you may not know what's being injected into your skin. And, then, there's also the risk of an allergic reaction.

If you have to get a tattoo, here are some precautions: Treat the area with an antibacterial ointment to reduce the chance of infection while it heals. Protect it from excessive exposure to sunlight and water. Barring any complications, the tattoo should heal in one to three weeks.

Since tattoos are difficult and painful to remove, think long and hard before you choose this form of expression.

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The US Food and Drug Administration considers tattoos as cosmetics and the inks used as color additives that require pre-market approval. However, most local jurisdictions regulate the practice of tattooing. However the FDA does have a fact sheet about tattooing that you should read before considering getting one.

The Mayo Clinic provides some excellent information about tattoos, tattoo removal and body piercing that you should definitely read before choosing this form of personal and artistic expression.
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Medline Plus, a service of the US National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus will direct you to information to help answer health questions. MedlinePlus brings together authoritative information from NLM, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other government agencies and health-related organizations. This page provides extensive links about tattoos and piercings.

Smithsonian Museum Magazine has an excellent article about the history of tattooing that fun to read as well as very interesting. For example, did you know that the earliest known tattoos are those of the Iceman who was discovered in the area of the Italian-Austrian border in 1991 whose remains were carbon dated to about a 5,200 years ago?
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