What do Angelina Jolie and NBA players have in common? A fondness for tattoos. It may seem oh-so-trendy, but they're simply carrying on an ancient tradition of body ornamentation. Humans have been marking themselves with ink and jewellery for thousands of years. Luckily, we enjoy the benefits of modern health precautions. If you're thinking of getting body art, read on for safety tips.

Under your skin

Tattooing involves pushing ink into the skin with a rapidly moving needle (how much it hurts depends on your pain threshold). Choose your tattoo and tattooist carefully! Get referrals from friends, and ask tattooists about their training and credentials. Look at their portfolios to see if their style and technical skill appeals to you.

The tattooist should use a new, sterile needle and fresh inks to avoid spreading blood-borne diseases, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and tetanus. (Ask him or her to unwrap the needle in front of you.) Non-disposable equipment must be sterilized in an autoclave. Items that can't be autoclaved should be disinfected with a bleach solution or commercial disinfectant. The tattooist should wash their hands and wear a new pair of latex gloves for each session and after touching non-sterile objects. The studio should be well-lit, clean, and reasonably private.

Follow aftercare instructions, including washing the tattoo with soap and water, applying lotion, and avoiding sun exposure. Don't pick at scabs. If you have signs of infection - redness, swelling or pain after 48 hours, chills or fever, a foul odour, or pus - seek medical attention. If you have an itchy rash, it might be an allergic reaction. Some people are also prone to keloids, the formation of thick scars.

If you don't like your tattoo, you can have it removed by laser, microdermabrasion, or surgery, but some of these procedures can leave scars.

Piercing truths

Body piercing involves inserting jewellery in a hole made in a body part, most commonly the ear, eyebrow, nose, lip, or tongue. A hollow needle is inserted, followed by the jewellery item.

If you have any medical conditions, check with your doctor before getting pierced. When choosing a piercing studio, ask friends for referrals and pay a visit. As with tattooing, a new needle should be used, equipment should be autoclaved, and the artist should wash their hands and wear latex gloves. Avoid piercing guns - they can't be disinfected properly. After you're pierced, there may be some bleeding as well as swelling in the area.

To avoid allergic reactions, choose jewellery made of surgical-grade steel, 14- or 18-karat gold, titanium, or niobium rather than nickel or brass. Follow aftercare instructions, including how to clean your body piercing. Don't play with or remove your jewellery. If you notice signs of infection as described above, get medical help. Later, if you don't want your piercing, ask for professional help to remove the jewellery, and keep the area clean until the hole heals.

Jaclyn Law, 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team