Safer tattooing and piercing

Key points

  • Some forms of body art, such as tattooing or piercing, involve breaking the skin, which increases the risk of transmitting hepatitis C and other infections if equipment is reused or not sterilized properly.
  • Using new and sterile equipment for each person (new needles, new ink) reduces the risk of hepatitis C transmission.
  • Most professional settings have regulations and standards that aim to reduce the risk of hepatitis C transmission during tattooing or piercing.
  • Harm reduction practices can reduce the risk of hepatitis C infection for people who cannot, or choose not to, access professional services.

Tattoos and piercings are popular forms of body art in Canada. They both involve breaking the skin, which can increase the risk of hepatitis C transmission.

  • Tattooing involves breaking the skin with a needle to deposit permanent ink or pigment under the surface of the skin.
  • Piercing involves making a small hole in the skin with a needle, usually before inserting jewelry, such as rings or studs.

If equipment is being reused or not sterilized properly, it is possible to transmit hepatitis C or other infections. Blood does not have to be visible on the equipment to pass hepatitis C. The hepatitis C virus can live outside the body for long periods of time, and it can remain on surfaces or equipment that is not properly cleaned.

This page briefly describes prevention measures that can limit the risk of hepatitis C transmission in both professional and non-professional body art settings.

Body art in professional settings

Many individuals in Canada get body art in a tattoo or piercing studio. Most professional studios are regulated and can be inspected by public health departments.

To reduce the risk of hepatitis C transmission, it is safer for individuals to receive a tattoo or piercing from an artist or studio that:

  • has an inspection certificate from the local public health department
  • has an autoclave (used to clean equipment)
  • has infection prevention and control procedures to prevent the transmission of hepatitis C and HIV

Body art in non-professional settings

The risk of transmitting blood-borne illnesses (like hepatitis C) and other skin infections can be higher in non-professional settings. Piercing or tattooing outside of professional settings can lead to challenges with infection control because of:

  • limited or no sterilization of tools and work surfaces between one person and the next
  • shared ink, which can be a reservoir for bacteria and virus
  • inadequate disposal of sharps and other equipment, causing accidental needle-stick injuries
Tattoos and piercings in the prison environment

It is not uncommon for people to get tattoos or piercings while in prison. There is an increased risk for hepatitis C transmission in prisons, because these environments do not make it possible to sterilize used tattooing and piercing equipment or access new equipment.

Sharing information about safer tattooing or piercing practices is a valuable way to engage people in prison in important discussions about their health, in particular, harm reduction and hepatitis C prevention.

Infection control procedures

Equipment and environments must be correctly prepared and used to reduce infection risk. This includes using new needles and ink for each piercing or tattoo and ensuring that environments are cleaned between people.

Other practices that help reduce the risk of hepatitis C and other infections include:

  • using appropriate equipment and materials for the type of body art being done (for example, using hollow piercing needles and body jewelry made for the pierced area)
  • using new latex or vinyl gloves for each person, and changing gloves when they are soiled or before touching other surfaces
  • using new supplementary equipment each time (for example, dental bibs for mouth piercings, stencil paper for tattoos)
  • disposing of needles and other equipment in a sharps container or hard-sided bottle with a tight-fitting lid
  • knowing how drugs and alcohol can affect the judgment and skill of both the artist and the client, and making informed decisions beforehand about personal use
  • properly preparing the area and caring for the wound afterward

Resources for service providers

Resources for clients

Revised 2021