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Tattooing, Piercing and Body Art

  Oriental tattoo

Jump to: Tattooing | Piercing | Body Art.

The following is a summary of information from the Environmental Health Department's comprehensive document on body decoration. Use the links below to read the full document.

Tattooing, Piercing and Body Art, Word document 51kb | Tattooing, Piercing and Body Art, PDF 88kb.


Tattooing is an ancient art form of permanent colour marking below the skin surface. It requires very strict hygiene to prevent the spread of infection. The principle of tattooing is to penetrate the outer skin layers and to introduce colour, so that when the skin heals the colouration remains visible.  There are a number of standard precautions that must be observed to reduce the risk of transmission of blood-borne microorganisms including Human Immune deficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C viruses.

Other Forms of Tattoo

  • Temporary Tattoos: The only genuine temporary tattoos are transfer, airbrush and henna tattoos.
    • Transfer Tattoos: Transfer tattoos are highly coloured and adhere to the skin. They can be washed off or will fade away after one or two days.
    • Airbrush Tattoos: Airbrush tattoos do not involve any penetration of the skin. A stencil is applied to the area and pigments suspended in an alcohol product are sprayed onto the skin through the stencil using an airbrush. The effect will be a coloured tattoo and the colouring dries as alcohol evaporates. The 'tattoo' effect lasts for three to five days
    • Henna Tattoos: Henna tattooing is a process that involves staining the surface of the skin, an effect lasting approximately up to two weeks. It does not involve penetration of the skin using needles. The skin must be cleaned with an alcoholic wipe prior to carrying out the procedure in order to remove micro-organisms.
  • Micro pigmentation: This is sometimes described as cosmetic enhancement or semi permanent makeup, and the process involves tattooing but is used to produce natural pigmentation on body areas e.g., replace eyebrows and eye lines etc. All hygienic standards for tattooing are required.
  • Nail Tattoos: This is an outdated fashion and involves using tattoo guns to put designs on fingernails. The same hygienic standards as tattooing are required which is why manicurists now place transfers under plastic lacquers with no risk of cross contamination.
  • Temptoo / temptu: A tattoo where the needles pierce the skin, but supposedly do not breach the epidermis. Temptoo dyes are said to rise to the surface of the skin and vanish over three to five years. It is very difficult to control or guarantee the depth to which the tattoo needles penetrate.
    There is little evidence to show that tattoos are temporary if produced by dye or pigment injection into the skin. The infection hazards of skin piercing are present regardless of the stated lifespan of the finished tattoo.
    Temptoo should be distinguished from temporary transfer skin decorations, which are regulated as cosmetics.

Skin Piercing

Eyebrow PiercingSkin piercing is an ancient cultural phenomenon which has only emerged into Western mainstream society over the last three decades.

  • Ear piercing: Ear piercing is the most popular form of skin piercing and in Western society around 80% of females have their ears pierced.
    The lobe and upper cartilaginous parts (the helix) of the ear are the most popular sites for ear piercing. The lobe takes between six and eight weeks to heal and the helix three to six months.
  • Nose Piercing: Piercings' can be made in the nostril or the septum the part dividing the nostrils. The healing time can be as long as six months. Such piercings may be problematic because of the difficulty in disinfecting and keeping clean the wet mucous surfaces on the interior of the nose.
  • Mouth piercing: Lips, cheeks and the tongue are usual sites and jewellery should be carefully selected to avoid chafing or irritation of the teeth and / or gums. Piercing through the coloured part of the lip is not advised.
    Tongue piercing must be carried out with particular care, owing to the risk of severing large blood vessels, or causing trauma to nerve tissue. The tongue will commonly be swollen for one or two weeks after the piercing procedure.
    All mouth jewellery is subject to plaque build up, meaning thorough aftercare using denture cleaner is necessary. The British Dental Association suggests that people seek advice from their dentist for detailed aftercare instructions concerning all oral piercing.
    Likewise, maintenance of the jewellery itself is crucial for avoiding accidental damage or inhalation should it break up or become detached.
  • Eyebrow piercing: Care must be taken not to interfere with nerves immediately beneath the eyebrow. The permissible depth of piercing will depend on the individual, but it is unlikely to be more than about 10mm. The healing period is around two to four months, although eyebrow piercing is frequently rejected by the body.
  • Surface piercings: These usually involve the neck, the chin, the forearms and wrist. However, they are likely to be rejected as the skin tension places pressure on the jewellery, and forces it to the surface.
    A good knowledge of human anatomy is important before undertaking surface piercings, owing to the risk of damage to nerves, blood vessels and musculature.
  • Navel piercing: A common site for piercing, the navel has considerable variations of shape between individuals. Not all are suitable for piercing and placement and choice of jewellery is critical for success. Healing times vary and may take up to one year.
    Naval piercings are potentially hazardous because of the navels direct link to internal organs and abdomen generally. Infection of the navel can result in severe infections of, for example, the liver with potentially serious medical consequences. In particular, umbilicus piercing is not recommended, owing to the risk of visceral infection.
  • Nipple piercing: Another common site for piercing, again with position and choice of jewellery critical for success. Female piercing must not be made through the areole, although it is permissible for male nipples. The healing period is likely to be in the region of four to eight months.
  • Genital piercing: Clearly, for both sexes, intimate contact is involved. There are also age of consent implications. It is not possible for a female of less than 16 years of age to give consent to these proceedings. For females below this age, genital piercing constitutes indecent assault. It is good practice for piercers not to complete genital piercings on girls less than 18 years of age, even with parental consent.
    Both sexes are affected by the 'Sexual Offences Act 1956' to the extent that neither girls nor boys under the age of 16 years may give consent to intimate sexual contact if it is for sexual gratification.
    Healing times vary considerably from a few months to over a year.

Body Art

Tattooist at work.
  • Scarification: This is an extreme form of permanent body art and includes both branding and cutting in order to produce scar tissue on the skin surface.
    Cutting is carried out using a surgical scalpel, taking care not to slice too deep due to the risk of injury to skin, nerve or capillary tissues. The depth of the cut is dependent on the skin of the individual being cut and is usually carried out on the chest or back. Cuts may be enhanced using ash or tattoo ink.
    Any parts of the body likely to stretch under pressure or movement are unlikely to be satisfactory sited for scarification.
  • Branding: This is a form of scarification, usually achieved by burning the skin with heated metal to form a simple but permanent design.
    It takes a long time for a brand to heal, up to a year, and its size will tend to expand during the healing process, possibly spoiling the ultimate design.
  • Braiding: This is the most extreme for of scarification and involves cutting adjacent strips of skin keeping one end of the skin attached to the body and braiding them together. The loose ends are then re attached to the skin.
    The risk of infection and permanent injury is very high. The process is extremely painful and very few body art professionals undertake such a practice.

There is more information on the health and legal issues involved in Tattooing, Piercing and Body Art, for the public and providers of these services, in the full document referred to at the start of this page.