Tattooists told to clean up their act

Shake-up for Swiss tattooists as new rules are introduced (SFDRS) SFDRS

Tougher controls are being introduced in tattoo and body-piercing studios across Switzerland to protect customers from potentially lethal infections.

This content was published on January 30, 2006 minutes

Tattoos are hip, edgy and more popular than ever, with American rapper Eminem leading the way. He has an open grave and the words "Rot in Pieces" etched into his chest.

It may be cool, but being drilled into is not safe at all, according to a European Commission report published in 2003, which lists gruesome illnesses contracted by people who had tattoos and piercings that went wrong.

The report said that up to half of all body piercings in 2003 led to acute infections needing medical treatment and two people died.

It added that little was known about the chemical structure and toxicity of many of the dyes used in tattooing and warned that many people were effectively injecting car paint into their skin.

The Council of Europe, of which Switzerland is a member, followed up the report with a resolution on tattoos and permanent make-up. This led the Swiss to take a closer look at their own industry.

The Federal Health Office teamed up with professionals from the tattooing industry to produce guidelines for safe working practices, but these are not legally binding.

It is up to the cantons to legislate on procedures used in the industry.

New rules

The Federal Health Office has more freedom to enforce restrictions when it comes to the materials used for piercing and tattooing.

It has now regulated the toxicity of pigments and has drawn up hygiene rules for instruments and packaging.

From now on, instruments used for piercing, tattooing and applying permanent make-up must be sterile.

Certain heavy metals and carcinogenic substances may no longer be used in dyes and all pigments must now carry content descriptions on the packets.

Cosmetic contact lenses, or "fun lenses", will also be subject to rigorous controls. Producers or importers must now state on the product that it complies with government standards.

The Association of Swiss Professional Tattooists has welcomed the changes.

Luc Grossenbacher, the Association's vice-president, told swissinfo: "Many Swiss tattoo studios do not even observe the minimum hygiene standards."

Grossenbacher reckons that only a quarter of the country's tattooists will not bother to make the required changes, but those who refuse can expect to face heavy fines.

Getting tough

The controls will not be enforced until December 21 2007 in order to give the industry two years to adapt.

The biggest lobby for tattoo ink manufacturers in Europe, T.I.M.E., says it is possible to produce non-toxic paints and make the relevant packaging changes before the deadline expires but that safe pigments may cost more.

Michel Donat from the Federal Health Office took part in the European Commission's 2003 study on the safety of the industry and helped draft the Swiss guidelines for working practices.

Donat told swissinfo: "After the two-year period of grace, there will be frequent inspections of tattoo parlours and dyes will be confiscated for analysis at cantonal laboratories."

"Customs officials will be told to look out for imports of tattoo dyes to make sure that they comply with the guidelines."

Donat is now putting pressure on the cantons to introduce a licensing system for tattoo and piercing artists.

The regulations are bound to upset less meticulous members of the tattooing community but they could be a lifesaver for their customers.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Key facts

An estimated 10-15% of people in industrialised countries have tattoos.
Tattooists in Switzerland charge SFr150-250 ($117-195) per hour.
There is no professional qualification for artists and no laws governing the practice.
The Association for Swiss Professional Tattooists represents only 22 of 350 registered tattoo parlours.

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