Diabetes and Tattoo Safety

Take Steps to Avoid Infection and Other Complications

A person getting a tattoo

Stevica Mrdja / EyeEm / Getty Images 

If you are living with diabetes and considering a tattoo, you must be certain that your blood sugars are in good control before getting inked. Chronically elevated blood sugars can increase the risk of a skin infection. This is especially true in type 1 diabetes.

In addition, people with diabetes should consult with their healthcare provider before getting a tattoo to make sure there are no contraindications. Learn about all the reasons behind getting a tattoo, what types are available, the risks that could be involved, and how to mitigate the risk of any adverse side effects.

Motivation Behind Getting Tattoos

Desire to get a tattoo may come from a want to express yourself artistically and decoratively. Or perhaps you want to get a tattoo that is diabetes-related and use it as a means of creating support and awareness.

Some people with diabetes decide to get a tattoo as medical identification. In a medical emergency, medical personnel know that they have diabetes and can act accordingly.

Self-expression: Many people get tattoos that replicate things that have meaning to them, a design, an animal, a quote, a date. Looking at a daily reminder of something you love is a way to express yourself artistically and bring you happiness.

Diabetes awareness and support: You may want to get a tattoo to raise awareness and support for the disease that affects your life daily. Some people with diabetes decide to tattoo the universal symbol for diabetes, which is the blue circle.

Wearing this symbol on your body may help you feel connected to others with diabetes while also raising awareness and support for the fight against the disease. Online, you will find that a blue and gray ribbon with a drop of blood is another symbol designed to raise diabetes awareness. This is also a common type of tattoo that people with diabetes may choose to get.

Tattoos as a form of medical identification: The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes wear a diabetes medical identification bracelet. This is especially important for people who use glucose-lowering medication because they are at increased risk of developing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Medical personnel are trained to look for medical alerts, especially when a person is not responsive. A person with diabetes who is unconscious could be having a hypoglycemic event, and therefore emergency personnel need to know that they have diabetes in order to treat them properly.

Traditionally people with diabetes wear a medical bracelet, necklace, or carry a medical ID card in their wallet with basic health information. One type of tattoo representing a medical ID is the Star of Life symbol with the snake and staff inside. This is the universal medical alert symbol for the emergency medical service systems.

If you do a quick search online, you will find that some people with diabetes choose to modify this traditional medical symbol, replacing the staff with a syringe. You can design it however you like, but it is prudent to make it clear that you have diabetes.

Other tattoos may not have symbols but rather use words such as "Type 1 Diabetes." The creative types of tattoos are endless. That is the beauty of getting a tattoo—you can design it however you like. While these types of tattoos are meaningful and purposeful, they are not regulated or standardized, which can be problematic.

For example, it may be difficult to identify someone with diabetes by using a tattoo because people do not always get them on a spot that is exposed. This can make it difficult for emergency personal to find it.

If you are thinking about getting a diabetes tattoo as a substitute for a medical ID, you should get it in a noticeable spot. And you should still wear medical identification jewelry or keep a medical information card in your wallet as an extra layer of protection. Always discuss this with your healthcare provider before making a decision.

What are the Risks?

Tattoos are permanent body art etched into the skin using electrically driven needles. The needles insert ink into the dermis (middle layer of the skin). When you get a tattoo, the needle punctures break blood vessels. As a protective response, your body produces a natural defense against the injury and can become inflamed and bruise.

Ensuring that the tattoo establishment is licensed and clean is important in mitigating risk. Proper and thorough care of the skin after a tattoo session is also critical in preventing infections. But even with the greatest of care, there is still some risk of having an adverse reaction, which is likely to be higher in people with diabetes, especially those with elevated blood sugar.


Contaminated ink, dilution of ink, non-sterile needs, or improper tattoo care are some of the variables that can cause a skin infection in any person receiving a tattoo.

People with diabetes are at increased risk of getting an infection if their blood sugar levels are not in good control. And if blood sugars are elevated, it becomes increasingly harder to fight infections because high blood sugars can weaken the body's immune system.

Tattoo-related infections are more likely to occur when there is inadequate care or improper hygiene at the tattoo site after it is complete. Trauma caused by needles penetrating the skin may result in microbial pathogens passing through the skin, thus causing localized skin infections.

Rare, serious bacterial infectious complications have occasionally been documented in the literature. Signs of infection include, but are not limited to, rash, pain, itchiness, chills and sweating, pus at the site, fever, open sores in the tattoo.

If you suspect you have an infection, you should get medical attention right away because the sooner you receive treatment, the better the outcome. People who are considering getting a tattoo must be aware of this risk and seek medical attention if they suspect any infection.

Slow Wound Healing

People with diabetes are at increased risk of impaired wound healing. While there are many physiological reasons for this, two of the most prominent include hyperglycemia and chronic inflammation.

To prevent an infection, a tattoo must heal properly; therefore, you should not get a tattoo if you have chronically elevated blood sugar. It is important to discuss your blood sugar levels with your healthcare provider before considering getting a tattoo.


The application of tattoo ink can cause keloids in certain people. Keloids are fibrous scar tissue. If you tend to scar or have had a keloid in the past, you may want to reconsider getting a tattoo.

Allergic Reactions

The general population is at risk of developing allergic reactions to tattooing, but due to more strict standards, reactions are often rare and unpredictable. Some people are allergic to ingredients in the tattoo ink.

There seems to be an increased risk of reaction to red dyes, although research on ink ingredients and their long-term effects are on-going. Occasionally, people can develop an allergic reaction several years after getting a tattoo.

An allergic reaction could cause itchiness, redness, or small bumps. In people who already have skin conditions, such as psoriasis, or atopic dermatitis (eczema), tattoos may make these conditions worse.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, signs of a serious but rare allergic reaction include "Trouble breathing, a racing heart, tightness in your chest, dizziness or lightheadedness, a stomachache, intense swelling, serious pain, flushing, or hives." These reactions warrant immediate medical attention.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

This can occur in lymph nodes close to the tattoo site, such as the neck, groin, and armpits. Some swelling might be normal, but if it is prolonged, you should contact your healthcare provider to rule out infection.

Decision Regret

Many people get a tattoo only to want to remove it later. Tattoo removal can be painful, difficult, and expensive. Before getting inked, make sure you are committed to your design and have done all your research before scheduling.

Steps to Mitigate the Risk of Infection

If you have diabetes and are thinking about getting a tattoo, there are certain steps you can take to reduce your risk of infection or other adverse side effects.

Talk to Your Healthcare Provider First

Before you commit to a date and a design, you should consult with your practitioner. While all blood glucose levels should be individualized, the American Diabetes Association suggests that most adults with diabetes should aim for a hemoglobin A1C (three-month average blood sugar) of around 7%, which means that your estimated average blood sugar is about 154mg/dL.

If your blood sugars are much higher than this, your healthcare provider will probably recommend that you reconsider your tattoo for a time when it is safer for you.

Tattoo Parlor

Ensure the safety and cleanliness of the tattoo establishment. To ensure the highest level of safety, you will want to research certain safe practices. For example, your tattoo artist should be licensed, all the equipment used should be sterile, they should wear gloves, and inks and ointments should be portioned out for individual use.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), all needles must be single-use only, and the tattoo parlor needs to follow all state and local laws. If you are not sure, The National Conference of State Legislatures has information on-line about state laws and regulations governing tattooing and body piercing.

You can also contact your county or city health department for more information. Before making an appointment, it is important to do some research to find a tattoo establishment that practices at the highest level of safety.

Check the Ink

Ask what's in the ink. Contaminated ink has been linked to many infections, particularly nontuberculous mycobacterial infections.Although it is difficult to determine whether or not an ink has been contaminated, the FDA alerts the public when there has been a recall and when there are public health concerns.

You can always check with your state, county, or local health departments to rule out any parlor's associations with ink recalls. Also, you can ask your tattoo artist if the inks they use inks have undergone a process that eliminates harmful microbial contaminants.You can also request inks that are specifically manufactured for tattoos.

Avoid Body Locations With Poor Circulation

Avoid getting a tattoo on body sites where you may have poor circulation. Certain areas of the body, such as those further away from the heart, can be susceptible to reduced circulation, particularly in people with diabetes.

If you have diabetes and have poor circulation, it is probably best to avoid tattooing areas such as the legs, feet, hands, and buttocks. Poor circulation can reduce the body's ability to heal wounds, increasing the risk of infection.

Aftercare and Surveillance

Follow aftercare instructions and be on the lookout for adverse reactions. Make sure you keep your tattoo clean and follow all aftercare instructions given. Proper aftercare can help to preserve the look of your tattoo and help to keep your skin safe.

Watch out for skin reactions, including redness, bumps, or itchiness in the area that was tattooed. More severe side effects include fever, shaking, chills, or sweats. These reactions may need to be treated with antibiotics. If you have any side effects, you should contact your healthcare provider right away.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone has a different reason for wanting to get a tattoo. Perhaps you want to use the design to express yourself artistically, support diabetes awareness, or simply not worry about wearing a medical ID. Whatever the reason behind it, before making your appointment, you should first consult with your medical team.

Doing so will ensure that you are equipped to get a tattoo safely and that you are not at increased risk of infection. Also, ask your healthcare provider about the safety of using your tattoo as a medical ID. They may recommend that you still carry a medical card in your wallet to serve an extra layer of protection in case of an emergency.

The bottom line is that if you have diabetes and want to get a tattoo, you can absolutely figure out how to express yourself. You just need some proper planning, education, and guidance to do so safely.

15 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.
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By Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN
Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist.