Can You Get HIV From a Tattoo or Body Piercing?

The risk is low if state regulations are followed

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There is a theoretical risk of getting HIV from a tattoo or body piercing simply because the virus can be passed through blood. However, there has yet to be a single documented case of this in the United States.

When body art of this sort is performed under the laws and health regulations of U.S. states, the risk of HIV transmission is considered negligible. The same may not be true in unregulated settings where the rate of HIV is high, such as a developing country or prison.

This article describes both the theoretical and documented risk of HIV transmission by tattooing and body piercing.

Tattoo artist tattooing an arm
Westend61 / Getty Images

How Tattooing and Body Piercing Could Transmit HIV

Tattoo artists create their designs by injecting ink into the middle layer of a person's skin, called the dermis. They do this by using a machine called a tattooing gun that punctures the skin with a cluster of small, high-speed needles.

Body piercing uses a single needle to puncture the skin.

By puncturing the skin and drawing blood, certain bloodborne infections like HIV and hepatitis C can theoretically be passed from one customer to the next if the gun or needles aren't properly disinfected.

Even so, the risk of this occurring is considered unlikely.

Why Transmission Is Unlikely

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of HIV through tattooing or body piercing is considered low to negligible.

While the CDC says that there is a theoretical risk of transmission, there has yet to be a single documented case of HIV by any form of body art.

This is largely due to the fact that transmission can only occur if:

  1. The first customer not only has HIV but also a high viral load (meaning that there is a lot of virus in their blood). HIV is less likely to be transmitted if the viral load is low or undetectable.
  2. The customer bleeds significantly on the equipment.
  3. The equipment is not disinfected (either adequately or at all) between customers.
  4. Blood from the contaminated equipment enters the next customer's body in significant enough amounts for infection to occur.

Within the context of body art, the likelihood of these conditions being satisfied is slim. The risk of infection is nowhere near as high as, say, sharing injecting needles and syringes where HIV-infected blood is delivered directly into another person's vein.

Where the Risk of HIV Exists

Despite the statistical evidence, there are those who remain unconvinced that tattooing and piercing are without significant risk.

By way of example, a 27-year-old body art customer filed a lawsuit in 2017 after a tattoo parlor refused him service for having HIV. While the court ultimately ruled in the man's favor, the case highlights lingering doubts and misconceptions about how HIV is spread and not spread.

Part of the reason for the doubts is that the theoretical risk of transmission can become all too real when tattooing or piercing is performed outside of a regulated parlor. These include gang tattoos performed by amateur artists, tattoos done in prison, and piercings done by friends.

This is especially true in areas where the prevalence (rate) of HIV is high.

As an example, a 2012 study from Ethiopia concluded HIV and other bloodborne infections were occasionally transmitted through improperly sterilized barbering equipment. In addition to unsterile practices, the rate of HIV in Ethiopia is 10 times greater than in the United States (3% vs. 0.3%, respectively).

Similarly, the rate of HIV in prisons is four times greater than in the general U.S. population (1.3% vs. 0.3%, respectively).

Adding to the risk, prison tattoos are often done with multiple, deep skin punctures using re-used objects such as staples, paper clips, and ink tubes from ballpoint pens. Because of this, there tends to be greater blood exposure and, in turn, a greater risk of HIV and hepatitis C transmission.

Irrespective of the facility or location, unsanitary body art practices inherently increase the risk of bloodborne infections, most especially hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Safe Tattooing and Body Piercing

If you are considering getting a tattoo or piercing, there are several things you should do to better ensure your safety:

  • Contact your local health department to find out what safety regulations are in place for tattoo or piercing parlors in your state.
  • Call the parlor in advance and ask what procedures are used to prevent the spread of HIV and other bloodborne infections.
  • Where applicable, ask for proof that the artist is licensed and check that the license is up to date.

State laws can vary significantly, with some requiring licenses or permits and others not. With that said, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws governing the safety of both tattoo/body piercing facilities and their practitioners.

Similarly, all 50 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the piercing or tattooing of minors without parental permission.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV transmission.

  2. Insurance Journal. Utah tattoo parlor settles with man who has HIV.

  3. Gallè F, Mancusi C, Di Onofrio V, et al. Awareness of health risks related to body art practices among youth in Naples, Italy: a descriptive convenience sample study. BMC Public Health. 2011;11:625. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-625

  4. Biadgelegn F, Belyhun Y, Anagaw B. Potential risk of HIV transmission in barbering practice in Ethiopia: from public health and microbiological perspectivesBMC Public Health. 2012;12:701. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-707

  5. United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Trends in new HIV infections.

  6. National HIV Curriculum. Epidemiology and prevention of HIV in correctional setting.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C questions and answers.

  8. National Conference of State Legislators. Tattooing and body piercing | State laws, statutes, and regulations.

By Mark Cichocki, RN
Mark Cichocki, RN, is an HIV/AIDS nurse educator at the University of Michigan Health System for more than 20 years.