Body art risks explored

April 9, 2005

New Orleans — A pair of new studies sheds light on body art complications while linking tattoos and piercings to demographic and behavioral factors, ranging from age to sexual activity and mental health.

Previous studies of body art have usually involved convenience samples, or, on occasion, people who have presented at medical facilities for some other purpose. In contrast, in a study using random digit dialing technology with a 32 percent response rate, a nationally representative sample of 500 respondents between the ages of 18 and 50 were questioned on the subject in the spring of 2004. Some of the findings reinforced conventional wisdom; other conclusions were less expected.

"As the number of piercings increases, the prevalence of jewelry allergies, mainly to nickel and cobalt, rises," says Anne E. Laumann, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., M.R.C.P., associate professor of dermatology, Northwestern University.

Conversely, respondents with eight or more piercings reported no jewelry allergies.

"You wouldn't expect them to be allergic. Otherwise, why would they keep piercing themselves?" Dr. Laumann tells Dermatology Times. She spoke on the topic at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) here.

Piercing and promiscuity Complementary data emerged from a survey of 1,000 undergraduates at a midwestern university also conducted last spring. Among the 463 who responded, 36 (7.8 percent) reported a total of 48 piercings in areas other than the soft ear lobe. Among these students, 36 percent had been diagnosed with depression, compared with only 11 percent among those who did not have a body piercing.

"If you look at our undergraduate study," Dr. Laumann says, "it was very interesting that the respondents who are tattooed and body-pierced have more sex partners. That's very important when you're thinking about 19-year-olds who have just left home. The ones who have had one or fewer sex partners presumably had one boyfriend or girlfriend and haven't gone beyond that. But for whatever reason, maybe the ones who are more into their bodies, exhibitionism, or risky behavior tend to have more sex partners. These findings should alert physicians who see young people with body art to explore their mental health status (and) sexual histories, and investigate for sexually transmitted infections."

Undergraduates with normal body mass indexes were more likely to have body piercings.

"It tells you something about what young people are thinking about themselves and their body image," Dr. Laumann says.

As for tattooing, the national survey found that 24 percent of the sample population had had at least one tattoo. Of this group, more than half had had tattoos by age 21. Researchers, furthermore, found that tattooing occurs in all ethnic groups, though it's more common in those with Hispanic ancestry.

Prison experience also correlated strongly with tattoos. The survey found that 58 percent of respondents who had been jailed at least three days had tattoos. The corresponding ratio among participants not jailed three days or more was 20 percent. If people have been in jail for three days or more, either separately or consecutively, it tends to imply that they have been in jail for a period of several months or more.

Alcohol linked to body art Likewise, drinking and drug use correlated positively with body art.