Can I Get HIV From a Tattoo or Body Piercing?

Body Art Provides Potential for Infection in Some Rare Cases

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Photo Credit: Michael Deschenes

Body art, which includes the practice of tattooing and body piercing, has become of increasing popularity worldwide, particularly among adolescents and young adults. Despite this (or perhaps because of the burgeoning interest), many have begun to question the health risks of such body art, especially the risk of contracting infections like HIV and hepatitis.

Here are just a few of the frequently asked questions relating to the safety of tattooing and body piercing.

Is There a Chance I Can Get HIV from Tattooing or Body Piercing?

Yes, there is a small, almost negligible, risk of infection by these means, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it seems to be more about the potential for infection as opposed to the actual risk of infection. As of yet, there are currently no reported cases of HIV transmission from either tattooing or body piercing.

How Might Such a Transmission Occur?

Tattoo artists create their designs 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 puncture the dermis with a collection of small, high-speed needles. Body piercing, by contrast, uses a single needle is used to puncture the skin. During the puncture of tattooing or body piercing, infections may be spread from a contaminated instrument into the body of the person receiving the tattoo or piercing.

While HIV transmission is unlikely, it can happen if a tattoo needle or body piercing needle is contaminated with HIV-infected blood from a recent customer and not sterilized between use. With HIV specifically, transmission would still be unlikely as risk is associated with the amount of blood present, the viral load of the previous customer, and the depth of the dermal penetration.

In the case of tattooing or piercing, the opportunity for infection is simply not as strong as, say,  with injecting drug use in which infected blood is injected straight into a vein.

State licensed facilities in the U.S. generally adhere standard sterilization practices, as with those offered by the Red Cross.

Is There Anything That Can Increase HIV Risk?

Risk is seen to increase significantly with informal or unlicensed practitioners, where the risk of HIV and hepatitis is considered probable. This includes prison settings, gang tattoos, or simply piercing and tattoos done among friends.

Especially in prison, tattooing and body piercing are often perform with multiple, deep skin punctures with re-used objects like staples, paper clips, and ink tubes from ballpoint pens. These factors increase transmission potential by facilitating greater blood exposure when compared to the significantly smaller needles of commercial tattoo artists.

What Should I Do If I Want to Get a Tattoo or Piercing?

If you are considering getting a tattoo or having your body pierced, ask staff at the establishment what procedures they use to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections, like hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Also, ensure the person performing the procedure is licensed.

You also may consider calling the local health department to find out what sterilization procedures are in place in the local area for these types of establishments.

Edited by Dennis Sifris and James Myhre


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "HIV Transmission." Atlanta, Georgia; accessed September 24, 2015. 

Gallé F., Macusi, C.; Visciano, A.; et al. "Awareness of health risks related to body art practices among youth in Naples, Italy: a descriptive convenience sample study." BMC Public Health. August 5, 2011;11:625.

University of California, San Francisco. "HIV Transmission and Prevention in Prisons." HIV InSite; accessed September 24, 2015. 

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