Tattoos are created by injecting ink into the dermal (second) layer of the skin. Tattooists use a hand-held electric machine that is fitted with solid needles coated in the ink. The needles enter the skin hundreds of times a minute to a depth of up to a few millimeters. The ink that is used in tattoos in the United States is subject to FDA regulation as cosmetics, but none are approved for injection under the skin. Tattoo inks are made from various compounds, including heavy metals such as, cadmium, cobalt and manganese. There are synthetic and vegan brands of ink available. It is generally assumed that ink molecules are too large to pass into breastmilk during the tattoo process. Once injected into the skin the ink is trapped, however it is unknown whether the ink can pass into breastmilk as it slowly breaks down in the body months to years later.
General information about tattooing also applies to breastfeeding women. Local and systemic infections are the most prevalent risks of tattooing. Local infections can occur when the recommended aftercare regimen is not followed. Allergic reactions to the ink used may occur as well, with red inks being the most prevalent, even after many previous tattoos. Aftercare includes keeping the tattoo clean with mild soap and water, not picking at the scabs and keeping the tattoo out of the sun. Tylenol is often prescribed for the pain, if needed. Systemic infections occur when universal precautions are not followed by the tattoo artist and can include such diseases as hepatitis, tetanus and HIV.
It is very important to screen the tattooist and the shop carefully, checking with the local health department for local laws and regulations. Professional tattooists will follow universal precautions such as sterilization of the tattoo machine using an autoclave, single-use inks, ink cups, gloves and needles, bagging of equipment to avoid cross contamination, and thorough hand washing with disinfectant soap.
Most tattooists will not knowingly tattoo a pregnant or breastfeeding mother. This is for liability reasons on the tattoo artists part, but also to prevent any disease that might affect the growing baby, and to allow the mothers body time to heal. It is suggested that mothers wait at least until 9-12 months after birth, when the child is no longer dependent solely on breastmilk before getting a tattoo. Reputable tattoo artists will have a waiver for the client to sign that asks about pregnancy and breastfeeding.