Many parents of today's teens recall when body piercing and tattoos were limited to sailors, bikers and circus performers. Now, such body decorations are seen everywhere. Even coaches trade advice on making sure teen athletes with pierced eyebrows and belly buttons remove jewelry before events.

In 2005, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper columnist C.W. Nevius wrote that belly-button piercings were the "tie-dye shirts of this generation." Noting that he took his own teen daughter to get her navel pierced, Nevius quoted a Rutgers University researcher who said "the cultural curve has passed" and declared piercings mainstream.

Predictably, the column triggered angry emails from some readers with teens who disagreed.

But in every household with a teen, newspaper columnist's opinions and research studies matter less than the family's own beliefs about body piercings and tattoos. It's important that parents obtain the most up-to-date information before their own teen asks, "Can I get a piercing?"

In Washington state, a person under age 18 cannot get a tattoo but can get a piercing. Piercing parlors will often refuse to work on someone under 18 without a parent's permission, even though no law requires it. Cora Collette Breuner, M.D., MPH, discovered this herself when she was entertaining a visiting niece who was thinking about getting a piercing.

"Unbeknownst to me, my niece wanted to get her tongue pierced," explains Breuner, who is director of the Adolescent Medical Clinic at Seattle's Children's Hospital and Medical Center. "She ducked into a piercing parlor -- just to look -- bringing me with her." When her niece asked about the procedure, the man working there said he would not perform the piercing without a parent's permission. Bruener says she was "horrified" at her niece's request, and relieved about the consent question.

A bill in the state Legislature in 2005 aimed at limiting the age of patrons and regulating hygiene for the piercing industry failed. This year, lawmakers are trying again, introducing two bills aimed at requiring stricter standards for piercing and tattoos. At press time, their fate was up in the air.

Breuner routinely fields questions from both teens and parents about body decorations of all kinds. She believes that one of the best things parents can do when a teen asks about piercings is to offer to go with the teen to investigate the options.

Try to find reputable piercing parlors with good hygiene practices, and help the teen ask enough questions about the piercing procedure to weigh the risks and benefits. When it comes to piercing, each area of the body has a slightly different time for healing and risk of infection. An eyebrow piercing, for example, might heal within six to eight weeks. A belly button piercing may take four months to one year.

With tattooing, some of the risk involves whether a young person will in later years regret the design chosen. Make sure your teen knows that tattoo removal is expensive -- laser removal costs as much as $2,000 and can take three visits.

Breuner suggests that parents offer the phrase, "Let's wait until we both know more." The height of risk-taking behavior is between ages 16-18, so if a parent encourages a teen to postpone an impulse, it might not return, she notes.

One serious health risk of both tattooing and piercing is infections, such as HIV or hepatitis, through unsterilized needles. Avoid this by patronizing a reputable piercing or tattoo shop that utilizes single-use needles and an autoclave to sterilize materials. Follow-up care is very important to prevent ordinary infections of wounds after both piercing and tattooing.

Some people have allergies to certain tattoo inks. Other people may be more likely to form keloid scars after piercing. Nipple piercing can also be problematic as it may complicate a young woman's future ability to breastfeed.

According to Breuner, belly-button piercing in the winter is especially troublesome, since teens often wear clothes that continually irritate the wound and prevent proper healing.

Tongue piercings carry their own special risks. Breuner says that while the piercing itself is less likely to become infected than other body locations, the jewelry worn can gradually scrape away some of the tooth enamel, exposing teeth to decay.

Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and a mother of three.

Online Resouces

  • Children's Hospital in Boston has a four-page explanation of every type of body piercing, and advice on care and prevention of infection.
  • includes entries on both tattooing and piercing, with easy-to-follow descriptions of risk, pain and the best care for new decorations.

Originally published in the February, 2006 print edition of

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