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Don't Ink Your Eyes

Close up of woman's eye

Let's just cut to the chase: getting an eye "tattoo" is a bad idea. A Canadian model is the latest person to learn this lesson the hard way after having purple ink injected into the sclera—or white—of her eye. Her eye then became infected and now she will permanently have reduced vision in that eye—if she doesn't go blind in that eye completely. "There are so many things that can go wrong with tattoos like these," said Amy Lin, MD, an ophthalmologist with Moran Eye Center. "The bottom line is not to mess with your vision."

Eye tattoos are not really tattoos in the traditional sense at all. Yes, pigment is used to change appearance, but that's where the similarity ends. First of all, the pigment in a tattoo in the skin remains static, in one place. With a scleral tattoo, the ink floats in a space between the sclera and conjunctiva, and spreads in an uncontrolled fashion. The ink can pool, and even cause permanent swelling in the white of the eye in some cases. Also, with a traditional skin tattoo there is very little danger of the ink going too deep. That is not the case with the eye. "The needle could go too deep and inject ink into the eye," said Lin. "That could lead to infection, decreased vision, and possibly blindness."

Like all tattoo inks the inks used in scleral tattoos are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that there is no standard for the safety of the products being used. A quick Google search shows some of the inks being used in scleral tattoos are similar to those used in copiers and on cars. "You could suffer an allergic reaction to the ink," said Lin. "Since it hasn't been tested and approved by the FDA you really wouldn't know until it is in your eye."

Another concern is that there is no such thing as a "certified eye tattoo artist." Sure, you can seek out someone who inked hundreds of eyes, but they still have not undergone any formal training, and have few regulations they have to follow. They almost definitely have not studied ophthalmology and probably don't have protecting your vision as their number one concern. "They also can't advise you about any possible long term impacts," said Lin. "Given the lack of regulation and experience, you are essentially becoming a guinea pig for a permanent and potentially dangerous procedure."

That sounds like a bad idea.