Can I Get HIV From a Tattoo or Body Piercing?

Body art offers the potential for infection in rare cases

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Photo Credit: Michael Deschenes

Body art, which includes tattooing and body piercing, has become of increasingly popular among older teens and young adults. As the art form continues to move from the fringes into the mainstream, many have begun to wonder whether it poses any risk of infection from bloodborne diseases such as HIV or hepatitis C.

Given that tattooing and piercing both draw blood, it may seem to some to be a reasonable concern.

How Transmission Might Occur

Tattoo artists create their designs by injecting ink into the second layer of a person's skin, known as the dermis. They do this by using a tattoo machine (called a gun) which punctures the skin with a collection of small, high-speed needles. Body piercing, by contrast, uses a single needle to puncture the skin.

As a result of the broken skin, certain infections can theoretically be passed from one customer to the next if the gun or needles aren't properly disinfected. But do they?

Why It Is Unlikely to Happen

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 accedes that there is a theoretical risk of transmission, there has yet to be a single documented case of HIV by either practice.

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

  1. A person undergoing tattooing or piercing has a high HIV viral load (meaning that there is a lot virus in his or her blood).
  2. The person bleeds significantly on the equipment.
  3. The equipment is not disinfected between customers.
  4. Blood from the contaminated equipment then enters the next customer's body in significant quantities for the infection to take place.

Within the context of body art, the likelihood of these conditions being satisfied as incredibly slim. The opportunity for infection is nowhere near as strong as, say, injecting drug use in which HIV-infected blood is delivered directly into a vein.

Lingering Doubts Remain

Despite this, there are some, including tattoo artists, who remain genuinely concerned. A recent lawsuit was filed in 2017 by a 27-year-old man who was refused service by a Utah tattoo parlor because he was HIV-positive. The court ruled in the man's favor, citing that statistically negligible risk of infection did not place the tattoo artist in harm's way.

While the decision was fair, it doesn't mean that the risk is negligible outside of a licensed parlor. In fact, the likelihood of transmission is seen to increase with unlicensed or informal artists. These include gang tattoos, tattoos done in prison, or piercings done between friends.

Especially in 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. These factors raise risk from unlikely to possible and place the person at risk of sometimes serious bacterial infections.

A Word From Verywell

If you are considering getting a tattoo or piercing, ask the staff at the parlor what procedures they use to prevent the spread of HIV and other bloodborne infections. You can also ask for proof that the artist performing the procedure is licensed and that the license is up to date.

You may also consider contacting the local health department to find out what regulations are in place regarding safety in tattoo or piercing parlors. While state laws can vary significantly, the majority of them do agree on one thing: age limits. Currently, 38 states prohibit the piercing or tattooing of minors without parental permission.

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