The Safe Way to Get Ink When You Have Diabetes

Nothing is keeping someone with diabetes from getting a tattoo. And if you’re thinking about a medical tattoo, you’re taking a great step to ensure proper care in case of emergency.

There was a time when tattoos were something only sailors, bikers, and other hard-livin’ rebels inked into their skin. Now 1 in 5 people have at least one—tattoos aren’t taboo anymore.

But can someone with diabetes get one?

Of course! And if you’re thinking about getting a medical alert tattoo, you’re taking a great step to ensure proper care in case of emergency.

What are the Risks?

Suzanne Ghiloni, B.S.N, R.N., C.D.E., a nurse educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, says tattoo precautions for patients with diabetes aren’t all that different from anyone else getting a tattoo. “Make sure the parlor you choose is licensed, state inspected, and clean,” she says.

When choosing a tattoo parlor, ask about how they manage their equipment. The shop you choose should:

  1. Have a licensed/accredited tattoo artist (preferably someone with artistic talent)
  2. Use a brand new needle just for you
  3. Autoclave their tattoo machines between customers
  4. Use disposable ink pots

“The only time I’d be hesitant is if the person has uncontrolled diabetes,” says Ghiloni. Her advice to anyone with diabetes, “get your HBA1C in a good range before you go to the tattoo parlor.” The reason:  if your levels are out of control, you put yourself at risk for slower healing, nasty infections and, in severe cases, amputation.

“A person with diabetes need to be hyper-vigilant about preventing infection,” says Ghiloni. “Follow all the aftercare precautions.”

Stephan Lanphear works on a tattoo

Stephan Lanphear, an award winning tattoo artist who helped legalize tattoo parlors in Massachusetts, is also a Joslin patient living with type 1 diabetes. During the legalization process, Lanphear helped the board of health write guidelines and regulations for the tattoo industry. “Health releases in tattoo studios have a question to see if you have diabetes,” he says.  “The tattoo industry recognizes it’s a risk.”

Lanphear finds his biggest concern as a person with diabetes is healing time. Usually, tattoos take around two weeks to heal. “But for me,” says Lanphear, “It’s usually a week to a week and a half more time where can I say okay, this is what a healed tattoo would be for someone with normal health.”

He notes, however, that healing time will differ person to person. “If you’re somebody who has diabetes you need to know your body,” he says.

You should also be aware that there are some spots for your tattoo that are better than others. Ankles, feet, shins, and buttocks are all problem areas if you suffer from poor blood circulation since they take longer to heal and are more susceptible to infections.

Another tip for those with diabetes: tattoos can take a long time, sometimes much longer than you expect. Sitting in a chair for hours puts you at risk for hypoglycemia so be sure to bring some glucose tabs or whatever else you use to treat your lows.

Tattoos for Your Health

Not everyone is vigilant about wearing a medical alert bracelet. But if you have diabetes, especially if you’re insulin dependent, you put your life at risk heading out of the house empty-wristed. If you find yourself often forgetting to wear medical identification, consider a medical alert tattoo.

These permanent ID’s have seen a surge in popularity over the past few years.  “It’s a really great idea,” says Lanphear. “I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people doing it.”

Stephan Lanphear holding his pump
Stephan Lanphear holding his pump

So, where should an alert tattoo go? Although there are no standards for medical alert tattoos, the general consensus is the right wrist. Another option is on your neck above the carotid artery (where EMT’s check your pulse), but that can be harder to cover in professional settings. Over the heart is another popular choice, although that may not be the first place the medics look.

When choosing the design, try to keep it simple and fairly obvious it is health related. The caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius are both the most commonly used symbols on medical alert jewelry. The light blue circle, a universal diabetes symbol started by the International Diabetes Federation in 2006, is another popular motif.

If you’re adding words—which you should, the point of this is to inform healthcare workers—make sure you choose a legible font. Medical tattoos for diabetes often read “Type 1/Type 2,” “Diabetic,” or “Insulin Dependent.” If you don’t add this information, the tattoo will only confuse people in an emergency. Is this for a penicillin allergy? Does this person have epilepsy? What does this mean?! If you’re going to invest in a medical alert tattoo you want it to do its job.

Lastly, whether it’s a medical alert tattoo or an artistic design, bear in mind that this is going to be on your skin the rest of your life. Although laser technology for tattoo removal has come a long way in the past decade, the treatment can take much longer to heal for those with diabetes (you are, after all, burning off your skin). On top of that, laser treatment is not cheap—anywhere from $49 to $300 per square inch depending on your skin type and the ink used.

If you’re considering a tattoo, whether it’s medical or not, don’t stop by the parlor on a whim and don’t be afraid to voice any concerns that you have.

“If the people in the shop don’t want to spend the time to walk you through the process and explain everything that’s going on and answer all your questions then turn around and walk out,” says Lanphear. “That would be my best advice.”

If you want a less permanent fix that doesn’t involve a bracelet, try temporary medical tattoos. These are a great alternative for teenagers (and even younger children) who have a hard time remembering their medical identification.


  1. This article lacks important information like: why some doctors suggest to people with an autoimmune/chronic disease not to have a permanent tattoo done and what about the effect different ink type’s contents (like iron) has on the skin when someone with a tatoo has an MRI done.

    • The suggestion that people with autoimmunity issues refrain from getting tattooed has to do with the risk of infection. As with anything that involves piercing the skin, it is essential that everyone (not just people with diabetes) make sure that everything involved is sterile.

      As far as MRIs are concerned, we checked with our friends at WebMD and here’s what they have on their site:

      MRI complications: There have been reports of people with tattoos or permanent makeup who experience swelling or burning in the tattooed areas during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This seems to occur only rarely and apparently without lasting effects. There have also been reports of tattoo pigments interfering with the quality of an MRI image. This seems to occur mainly when a person with permanent eyeliner gets an MRI of the eyes. Mascara may produce a similar effect, but it can easily be removed. Why these problems happen is unclear. It’s possible they result from an interaction with the metallic components of some pigments.
      The risks of avoiding an MRI when your doctor has recommended one are likely to be much greater than the risks of complications from a tattoo. Instead of avoiding an MRI, people who have tattoos or permanent makeup should tell the radiologist or technician in order to take precautions to avoid complications.

      Quoted from

      Hope this clarifies things.

      Joslin Communications

    • I recommend that anyone that has a tattoo let it mean something yo you i have a tattoo for the death of my parents and one for my brother who passed away and 2 tattoos for each of my boys and 1 angel to watch over me and my family

  2. Hi I have diabetes type 2 I have always wanted
    To get a tattoo I like to one for my diabetes
    As it cost me to much to replacing bracelet
    See I kayak fish I am thinking of getting
    Some sharks and blue ring octopus around
    Anchor but I hate pain and needles my nephew is a tattooist

    • It’s not as bad as u think I’m type 2 and I have 5 tattoos now in the last year till now… I’ve never had tattoos before… All i can say is my feet really made me sweat other than that the rest where a. Breeze which are all below the knee, I’m not looking forward to my ankles but km. Doing em… Anyways it feels like a pen being scratched on u roughly, and the next few days feels like a sun burn, and that’s it… Not to bad imo and worth the pain

      • I’m a type 2 diabetic and have 11 tattoos and just got another one yesterday. My best suggestion is to make sure your artist is WELL AWARE you have diabetes!! Then make sure they know what to look for and are experienced enough artists because typical diabetics skin can last for about 2-3 hours before you need to stop, but that depends on your skin type, pain threshold and of course your artists suggestions. I’ve never had any issues and that’s because you follow the after care VERY CLOSELY!!! If you do this, you should be able to get as many as you want!!! I love my ink, and probably won’t stop getting them anytime soon.

    • If you hate pain and needles i have 8 tattoos everyone hurt like hell real bad and if they tell you different they are lieing to you

      • Everyone is different Nancy. I have 11 tattoos and none of them were that bad, including the one on the top of my foot. My 20-year-old daughter just got her first and she did fine through it. She’s a wuss when it comes to pain normally. She said “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.” and hers were in two fairly painful places, behind the ear and between the thumb and forefinger. My 23-year-old daughter has several as well and she is needle phobic. It’s a completely different sensation from regular needles.
        Don’t try to scare Paul, or anyone, away from getting a tattoo. John’s description is pretty accurate actually.
        All I can say is, if it’s something you really want to do, go for it!

  3. Hi! Stephan I’m a type 1 diabetic and has been wanting to get a medical tattoo done ever since I found out diabetics can get them. I’ve talked to my endocrinologist about getting one and he think it’s a great idea, but wants me to get my AC1 at a better level beforehand. I’ll be seeing him again and hopefully my AC1 is where it needs to be because I want to get the tattoo on my 18th birthday (which will be 3 months after my appointment) if not I’ll simply have to wait some more. I was curious to know which tattoo parlor you work at. So when I’m able to get the ink work done, I could go to your establishment 🙂 if that’s alright with you of course. Hope to see you in March!
    – Jai’La

  4. My name is Rob I got arrested and put in a jail
    Cell cause I’m a dieabetic. And I had no id saying I was one. I go to trial on augst 10 th they are trying to give me a DUI. Could I get a dieabetic tatoo and a 2pac Shakur
    Tatoo ???

    My levels are under control…

  5. Hi im type 2 diabetic and when ever i get tattoos i have real problems retaining the colour ink just wandering what is the best after care that you have used and what if any creams are the best ? I want more tattoos but having to go back 3/4 times to get the same tattoo redone is getting expensive

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