It is my intention to give you a good understanding of health and safety in tattooing as I believe that it is just, if not more, important than the quality of the art itself.
Although health inspection agencies have some basic guidelines for the operation of tattoo studios, it is imperative that you realize one does not need the Health Board's approval to run a tattoo studio in many areas.
Common sense tells us that if the appearance of the tattooist and the shop are somewhat filthy, chances are it is not a reliable place to get a tattoo. This however does not mean that a clean and orderly shop is operating under the proper sterilization techniques either.
The only way for a tattooist to ensure safety is to use new needles on every client and sterilize the needle bars, needles, and tubes in a steam sterilizer only. Dry heat, cold sterilization, and disinfectants will not kill the bacteria and germs that cause Hepatitis and other viruses, as they do not have the penetrating properties of steam under pressure.
Steam is an excellent sterilizing agent because it kills microbes quickly as well as having the essential property of self-propelled force penetration. Large volumes of steam condense to a very small volume of water and more steam is then drawn in to replace it. All other processes such as hot air, sterilizing gases and pressure cookers (deep fat fryers) do not approach steam in their ability to penetrate. Hospitals use steam sterilization to properly sterilize their surgical instruments, why should tattooing be any different?
It is important to know that even if someone is using a pressurized steam sterilizer, all the air inside must be allowed to escape and the control valve should be left open for at least four minutes prior to sterilizing to ensure that only steam is left inside. Trapped air will form a cool air pocket or create an air-steam mixture which has a lower temperature than pure steam. It is the temperature of the steam that causes sterilization.
For objects to be successfully sterilized, the sterilizer should be operated in the range of 17 to 19 pounds for a minimum of 35 minutes. This will bring the temperature of the steam up to around 259 degrees Fahrenheit. This is vital information, and your tattoo artist should know it from memory or at least have the information close at hand.
The two most talked about viruses in the tattooing community are HIV and Hepatitis. At this time there has never been a reported case of HIV transmission by professional tattooing in North America. As well, HIV will not survive outside the body for more than two weeks , and it can be killed by boiling water with alcohol, and with bleach and other disinfectants. However, Hepatitis (more specifically hepatitis B) is a much more difficult virus to destroy, it forms spores which can survive indefinitely outside the human body and is highly infectious. The infection of this virus can occur when as little as 0.04 microliters of blood is transferred from one individual to another (0.1 ml for HIV). According to centres for disease control there is a 6% to 30% chance of becoming infected with hepatitis from an accidental injury with a hypodermic needle and a 1% chance of contracting HIV in the same way. Five different viruses (termed A, B, C, D and E) cause viral hepatitis. Three other viruses that cause hepatitis have now been identified, although not much is known about them.
Hepatitis (B) is an infection of the liver caused by HBV. This virus is found in body fluids such as semen, saliva, blood and urine. Most people recover from Hepatitis (B) within several weeks and develop antibodies from HBV. Hepatitis (B) can be prevented through vaccination. Vaccination for HBV has been on the market for over ten years and is recommended for all children (if all children receive the vaccine, Hepatitis (B) will eventually be eliminated). The spread of Hepatitis (B) can be prevented with good hygiene and common sense. The most important way to reduce infection is hand washing with soap and water. Avoid sharing personal items which may have traces of blood such as razors, needles, clippers and toothbrushes. Surfaces which may be contaminated should be frequently cleaned with soap and water followed by disinfection with undiluted household bleach. Soiled materials should be discarded in plastic bags. Please remember: Sterilisation and disinfection are two different things.
Now that you are equipped with some basic knowledge about HIV and HBV, sterilisation and disinfection, I would like to give you some insight on the needles themselves. Stainless steel needles are the safest way to go. I have seen mild steel needles form rust almost immediately after being removed from the package. Oxidation has occurred, as well, almost instantly after being removed from the sterilizer. Unprotected mild steel will begin oxidizing (rusting) when subjected to various wet/humid weather conditions, and in my opinion these particular needles should not be used. I'm sure you have heard of people needing a tetanus shot after being punctured by a rusty nail or tack, a rusting tattoo needle will have the same consequences.
Any professional tattoo studio will make the time to follow proper sterilisation procedures of the equipment and disinfection of the work area. Wearing latex or vinyl gloves, using new pigments and cups, along with replacing the solution in the ultrasonic cleaner after each customer will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, any chance of Tattooist and/or client from becoming infected. I am by no means trying to scare anyone away from being tattooed. I really do believe this information should be known to clients and tattooists alike, and with the proper care and knowledge, I am confident that your every tattoo experience from this point on will be satisfying and completely safe!
Remember kids, Rihanna or Pink would never go for an unsafe tattoo.