I love tattoos. I always have. I troll tattoo hashtags and stalk celeb tattoo artists the way most people (okay, also me) follow Kylie Jenner. I've been inked by the greats – Bang Bang, who did Selena Gomez's praying hands, JonBoy, the artist who gave tattoos at Travis Scott's birthday party, and Rosa Bluestone Perr, the unofficial stick and poke guru of the fashion elite. After eight pieces of ink in varying sizes, I thought I was experienced in all aspects of tattoo care – until I got my latest tat.
I walked out of the parlor feeling thrilled about my newest addition: a two-inch tracing of Picasso's famous sketch (yes, the one Joe Jonas has) just below the crook of my arm.
It looked perfect. The lines were crisp and straight and the placement was just what I wanted. I did what any new tattoo owner would do, promptly staging a photo shoot for Instagram on my walk home. Not to brag, but the resulting photo became one of my most-liked pics of the entire year.
I had barely gotten time to show off my new accessory, when something started to feel... off. Forty-eight hours in and my tattoo began to itch – like, unbearable, can't-stop-clawing-at-your-arm itch. Anyone who has gone under the needle knows that a little bit of itching is a normal, albeit annoying-as-hell, part of the healing process. The problem is, it usually doesn't usually start to itch until four or five days in and it usually doesn't itch this bad.
Within days, my perfect little drawing started swelling and broke out in a fiery red rash that spread into the bend of my elbow. The itching was unbearable and the fear of infection started blooming in my mind quicker than the rash itself.
I spent hours on Google searching for something that would ease my fear, but none of the gory photos of infected tattoos or online testimonials seemed to reflect what I was going through. There was no pus, no heat, no smell, no bleeding, no pain – all typical signs of infection. But my rash wasn't going away and it definitely wasn't normal. I finally went to the doctor and was diagnosed on the spot – I was having an allergic reaction.
I was shocked, because I've never even heard of allergic reactions to tattoos. So, I started to do more research and I found... basically nothing. So why is that? Well, according to Dr. Rachel Nazarian MD FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC, allergic reactions are fairly uncommon.
"True allergic reactions to tattoos, and the ink, are very, very possible, but thankfully not super common. Often people with sensitive skin mount a reaction to the prep process that cleans and sterilizes the skin, which is more common than a true allergic reaction to the ink and tattoo itself."
I spoke with Dr. Nazarian about my case and she told me that what I experienced was textbook. "Many people may first notice a redness to their skin – itching, a bumpy or scaly rash may also occur. Severe forms of contact allergy can develop blisters and pain at the site of contact."
What little information I found online told me that reactions usually only happen with red ink tattoos, which only added to my confusion. But Dr. Nazarian says this is actually a myth.
"You can develop and allergy to any color and all ink," she explained. "Red is certainly a more common source, but keep in mind the same ingredient is also mixed to make other colors, and can be a part of additional parts of the ink palate."
Thankfully, my reaction cleared up after a week of extra-strength hydrocortisone cream (a topical steroid), which Dr. Nazarian recommends as an effective form of treatment. "First confirm with a board-certified dermatologist that it is a true allergy. Topical steroids are a good first-line option, then injections or oral steroids, and as a last resort, excising or surgically removing the tattoo," she says.
It worked for me. Today, my ink is fully healed and just as beautiful as the day I got it.
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