Armpit Tattoos Are a Surprising Beauty Trend of the Summer—but Are They Safe?

An MD explains the risk linked to these eye-catching tats.

You may have heard about the Canadian model who decided to tattoo her eyeballs purple. She ended up with a nasty infection and is now waiting to see if she can save her sight.The practice of tattooing your eyeballs actually has a name–sclera staining (sclera is the outer layer of your eyeball)–and, as the model’s story illustrates, it’s not a good idea. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, the procedure actually involves putting a needle in your eye.Matt Hoffman, a family nurse practitioner and clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M College of Nursing, has seen it a couple of times in younger patients keen on experimenting. With any tattoo, there is a risk of infection, he says, including of hepatitis C, HIV, or conjunctivitis if the needle used is not clean.Not only are there health risks, the tattoos aren’t even effective in the appearance department either. “The pigment does not stay around,” Hoffman says. “It’s basically your body rejecting it. That should be a flag not to do this.”Another flag? A state legislator in Indiana is trying to pass a law to ban the practice. Westend 61/Getty Images

You can get a tattoo pretty much anywhere on your body, and the underarm ink trend is living proof. Intricate tats in this sensitive area have popped up all over Instagram, and it's hard to stop scrolling through the #armpittattoo pics. But we couldn't help but wonder, is it safe to get inked in your armpit?

To find out more, we spoke with Pauline J. Jose, MD, a family medicine doctor affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. It turns out there is one real risk associated with prettied-up pits, and it has to do with your lymph nodes. "Tattoo pigments travel through the lymphatic system," Dr. Jose explains. "Since lymph nodes are abundant in the armpit area, [an armpit tattoo] can pigment those lymph nodes and mimic—or confuse—a cancer diagnosis."

Where To Avoid Getting a Tattoo

Armpit tattoos can be especially problematic for people who develop melanoma, she says, because pigmented lymph nodes can look like metastasis. "All those pigmented lymph nodes, and the skin supplied by them, may need to be biopsied when looking suspicious."

If you're considering a tattoo, the armpit isn't the only body part to avoid. Moles should never be inked over, because doing so can make it harder to detect any changes that could be a sign of skin cancer. And getting a tattoo near your eyes is also a bad idea, since the ink can pigment the eyes, says Dr. Jose.

Reactions to Ink

With any tattoo, it's important to remember that ink is a foreign object in the body—and your body may react to it with inflammation, pain, itching, or in other ways that can be hard to predict. If you have an autoimmune condition, or if you experience many allergic reactions to food and medications, "it may not be a good idea to get inked," says Dr. Jose.

On a brighter note: Infections from unsanitary tools or facilities are rare these days, because tattoo parlors practice universal precautions. If you're planning to get a tattoo, just be sure to avoid parlors that use heavy metal-based inks, says Dr. Jose.

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