Tattoos and Piercings: Does Body Art Jibe with the Big D?

Does Body Art Jibe with the Big D?

with Amy Tenderich

straightup-hiresEditor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!

May 2006 —I toyed with a wild idea for my 40th birthday last month: I really wanted to get a little silver belly ring. I even went so far as to research tattoo and piercing salons in my area (of which there are many in San Francisco). In the end, I chickened out, worried about infection and scarring, and the fact that I'm getting serious about going on the insulin pump, so don't want to be nursing two belly wounds at once. Not sexy.

Maybe it was my bit of midlife crisis. Whatever it was, it brought up the deep-seated question: Do we diabetics have the same freedoms as other people? Even when it comes to adorning our bodies with "permanent art"?

Got Control?

I wondered if the notion that diabetics cannot or should not get tattoos or piercings was just another outmoded taboo. But no, the concerns are real: diabetes does reduce the body's ability to heal wounds properly, increasing the risk of infection. On the other hand, everyone I know who's ever indulged was infected for a while after having the procedure done. But they all cleared up pretty quickly, so why shouldn't we?

In fact, it seems most doctors wouldn't steer someone with diabetes away from body art as long as their blood sugars are in good control – meaning an A1c below 8% – and they've done their homework on the reputation and sanitation of the parlor they're planning to use. (The biggest risk comes from using cheap jewelry and unclean instruments.) If you're not in good control, you will undoubtedly have problems healing. Note that your blood glucose levels can go up during the tattoo or piercing process itself due to the stress from the pain level, but should come back down the next day.

Who's Doin' It?

With this stuff being all the rage these days, I looked around and began to realize that I wouldn't have been the first person with diabetes to "risk it."

First off, LA Raider Dustin Rykert made headlines with his tattoo a few years ago. In his case, medical alert tags wouldn't stand up to the roughhousing of football, so he had a medical alert symbol tattooed on his chest, along with his name and the fact he has type 1 diabetes. Apparently he had no problems with healing. Of course, he had a whole professional health-monitoring staff at his side, so go figure.

There are also lots of laymen's testimonials out there. One particularly "out there" mother with diabetes wrote about her nipple piercing experience: "I urge all diabetics considering body mods to speak with their physicians and get permission, and some ethical piercers will not even work on a diabetic without a doctor's note… You must be responsible for your body and its care, so it is best to inform your physicians about anything you plan to do. (I feel) that it will become part of me, just like my diabetes."

Another young woman wrote how pleased she was with the rose she had tattooed on her chest. By simply keeping the area clean, limiting sun exposure, and using disinfectant regularly, she was able to report: "Everyone had told me that as a diabetic I would have a hard time getting the tat to heal. I was glad they were wrong."

Doctor's advice columns all seem to verify the general safety, and remind us not to confuse the minimal redness that denotes normal healing with infection. OK, so I still wanted to know: what's the worst that could happen?

Worst-Case Scenario

Apparently, you can pick up Hepatitis C from pre-used needles that have not been adequately sterilized between customers, or from unsterile practices by the artist (i.e. licking the needle, using the same ink or ink containers for more than one person, or testing needle sharpness by pricking his/her hand). Yuck!
But this is extremely rare, and the risk is the same for people without diabetes. Everyone considering body art should insist on fresh, single-use, disposable needles and fresh ink in new disposable containers – and assure that all equipment is disinfected with an autoclave, a device that uses steam to sterilize equipment. (Experts say cleaning with bleach or any other disinfectant doesn't always kill the hepatitis C virus.)

Sexy Is As Sexy Does

So what about the sexy factor? Naturally, tattoos and piercings are a matter of personal taste. But even if you like the look, does it jibe with that insulin pump hanging off your belly? Or do you still feel hip when you're poking that Phoenix on your forearm with a lancing device to test your glucose?

My philosophy is: heck, I still shop at Victoria's Secret, because people on lots of prescription drugs can be sexy, too, right? RIGHT? If body art makes you feel sexy, then you are sexy.

The only thing to keep in mind, especially with tattoos, is that the alterations will probably be with you for the rest of your life. How much are you going to like the look when you are 60, 70, or 80? Since I'm already halfway there, I guess this was part of the capitulation for me. So I'm not pierced (yet – pending the insulin pump). As a consolation prize, I've been playing with some fanciful temporary tattoos. Sexy is as sexy does, right?

Note that the T.H.O.R. Foundation for Children with Diabetes sells FDA-approved Temporary Medical ID Tattoos that last about 3-5 days and won't irritate the skin. Hardly sexy, but low-risk and very practical.

Read more about Amy Tenderich.

dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.

Last Modified Date: July 09, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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