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Getting Inked: Tattoos and Diabetes

Though you need to take extra precautions, tattoos are generally safe for people with well-controlled diabetes, and they can even be designed as medical alert identification. Should you get one?

Permanent body art has become more and more popular with each generation since World War II, with 38 percent of Millennials (ages 18 to 34 in 2015) and 32 percent of Gen X-ers (ages 35-50) sporting tattoos, according to Pew Research Center. That’s more than twice the number of tattooed Baby Boomers (ages 51 to 69) and five or six times the number of those 67 and over.

Ink Identity

Tattoos may be a way of identifying with a group, or even a generation, but they are also a way of expressing uniqueness. Most college students surveyed about the process and significance of their tattoos said they considered the pros and cons for months before committing to permanent ink. Most had their tattoos applied at professional studios and were happy with the results. The majority chose an area of their body for tattooing that could be easily covered.

Medical Tattoos

There are a several reasons why someone might get a tattoo for medical purposes or as result of a medical procedure. A tattoo can cover a disfiguring scar, add a nipple to a reconstructed breast or redirect light away from a damaged eye. Researchers are currently working on “smart” tattoos that use nanoparticle ink or tiny LEDs implanted in the skin to keep track of glucose levels.

Meanwhile, inked wrists and forearms have begun to replace medical alert bracelets for some people who require special attention in an emergency, such as anyone who uses insulin or is allergic to specific types of medication. If you dislike, or often forget to wear, medical alert jewelry, you may be more likely to consider a diabetes alert tattoo. 

diabetes tattooPhoto courtesy of Benno Schmidt. Tattoo by Darren Brass of Miami Ink.

Keep in mind that medical tattoos are not the most common way to alert emergency healthcare workers to your condition, so visibility and a clear, simple design are essential to help ensure the tattoo is seen and recognized. Along with the name of the condition, the design of inked alerts often includes a common medical emblem, such as the Rod of Asclepius or caduceus (serpent(s) wrapped around a stick) or the blue circle that is the symbol of diabetes. The wrist or forearm is considered a good location, because that is where you would otherwise wear a medical alert bracelet and where emergency responders will go to check your pulse.

Safety First

All the same tattoo safety precautions for the general population apply to people with diabetes. Additionally, you may be at higher risk of infection, and healing may take longer than in those who do not have diabetes. That’s why it is important to be sure your blood sugar is well under control before you get a tattoo.

Start by choosing a licensed, reputable tattoo studio to do the work. Be sure your tattoo artist uses single-use disposable needles, fresh ink in disposable containers, and equipment that is disinfected with an autoclave, a machine that sterilizes with steam. Consult with your healthcare provider before getting inked, and try to get a referral from someone you trust to a tattoo artist who has worked with customers who have diabetes.

Any professional tattoo studio will have you sign a release form before the artist begins to work. The form should ask if you have diabetes. If you check “yes,” they will ask if your blood sugar is under control, and it is up to you to answer honestly.

“You have to be at least 18 to get a tattoo,” points out Stephan Lanphear, owner of Lefty’s Tattoo Studio in Pittsfield, MA, who also has type 1 diabetes. “So I would hope a client with diabetes knows their own body well enough at that point and is responsible enough to be sure their AC1 levels are within range before getting a tattoo.”

Lanphear also talks to clients with diabetes about their general healing process, whether it normally takes 10 days or 2 months for a cut to heal. This way, he can personalize a discussion about the tattoo healing process before he begins. Because he has diabetes himself, Lamphear is particularly sensitive to any potential problems.

“Sometimes people lie about their glucose control or healing because they really want a tattoo and are willing to take risks,” Lanphear says. “All I can do is go by what they tell me, but if I suspect there might be serious healing issues or if I think a client would be harmed in any way, I would opt out of giving them a tattoo until they spoke with their doctor and came back and told me they got a go-ahead.”

Tattoo Style

Since very little research has been done to date on medical tattooing, no one knows how many people actually have medical tattoos. Nor are the pros and cons of medical or decorative tattooing for people with diabetes fully understood. While this might still be the early stage of an emerging trend, more people appear to be considering medical alert tattoos than ever before. Lamphear has seen this in his own studio, and says more people with diabetes are coming in for tattoos, though not necessarily for medical alerts.

“The people who are getting tattoos in 2015 aren’t the same types of people who were getting them 25 years ago,” he point out. “Nowadays, all kinds of people want tattoos for all kinds of reasons, and that includes people with diabetes because it is no longer considered taboo or unsafe.”

Whether you are “just looking,” or seriously considering a tattoo for decorative or medical purposes, there are several sites that contain information and photos specifically for people with diabetes. These include diabetesadvocacyHealthline, dLife, and DiabeticInk.

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