What is an Eyeball Tattoo?
An eyeball tattoo is a type of cosmetic body modification. Eyeball tattoos, also known as sclera tattoos, are an emerging trend of injecting ink into the sclera (the white of the eye).8
Unlike tattooing skin tissue, an artist injects the tattoo ink in between two layers of the eye under the surface of the conjunctiva. The ink then spreads out over a larger area. For example, some people tattoo the whites of their eyes black or red.
Like all tattoos, eyeball tattoos have risks and can be extremely dangerous.
Here’s what you need to know about eyeball tattoos and safer alternatives.
History of Eyeball Tattoos
Eyeball tattoos are uncommon because few tattoo artists are comfortable or willing to do them. Tattooing the sclera is illegal in Oklahoma, Indiana, and Washington.6
These laws followed several eyeball tattoos that went wrong, particularly in the late 2010s.
In 2017, Catt Gallinger, a Canadian tattoo model, made world news after posting on Facebook about her experience. She had purple liquid oozing from her eyes following the tattoo procedure. Gallinger also endured pain and blurred vision.6
Also in 2017, doctors Paul Freund and Mark Greve from the University of Alberta in Canada, shared a report on a male who suffered severe vision loss just 3 days after getting an eye tattoo.4
A 2017 study looked at two cases.3 The first case was of a 26-year-old man who developed orbital cellulitis and posterior scleritis within hours of getting an eye tattoo. The second case was about a 17-year-old man who developed two sub-episcleral nodules in the ink injection sites immediately after he got an eye tattoo.
In 2018, a 21-year-old female was the subject of a similar study. Her eye tattoo led to severe ocular inflammation, secondary glaucoma, and a cataract.5
Risks of Eyeball Tattoos
There are many risks of tattooing your eyeballs, a permanent procedure.
Tattoos on the whites of the eyes have not been medically reviewed or scientifically studied. Tattoo artists do not receive formal training for eyeball tattoos. There are also no licenses or certifications for these types of tattoos.
Eyeball tattoos are unsafe. Here are some of the biggest risks to keep in mind if you are considering a sclera tattoo:
1. Vision Loss
Tattooing the sclera can result in decreased vision, or worse, total vision loss.6
The injection should go beneath the conjunctiva. But if the tattoo artist does not inject the needle with perfect precision, they may unintentionally inject the ink inside the eye. The ink can bleed into the retina or the surrounding eye tissue.
If an eye tattoo is not done right, it can cause severe problems and pain.
Even if the tattoo does not cause any eyesight issues during the injection, it can cause problems later.
Your eye doctor will have a more challenging time examining your eyes during annual exams if your sclera is tattooed. They may miss signs and symptoms of bigger issues, which can result in vision loss over time.
2. Eye Infections
Any tattoo can cause a bloodborne disease, infection, or allergic reaction. An eye tattoo is no different.
If the equipment that a tattoo artist uses is contaminated with infected blood, you can contract a bloodborne disease. This includes Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Tattoo artists who do not use clean needles to inject the ink into the eye can cause eye infections. The ink itself can also cause an infection.6
An infection can result in many other symptoms, including inflammation and irritation. If left untreated, eye infections can cause serious problems like vision loss.
3. Eye Loss
In some cases of eyeball tattooing, eye loss is possible.6
If the eye continues to pose problems, it may need to be removed. In this case, a prosthetic eye (also known as a glass eye or a fake eye) can be placed in the eye socket. These are made from medical-grade plastic acrylic.
Safer Alternative Options
If you are interested in coloring your eye(s), consider safer alternatives. Colored contacts, also known as cosmetic contacts or costume contacts, might be a good option.
Don’t buy non-prescription colored contacts from costume stores like pop-up Halloween shops.7 Selling contacts without prescriptions has been illegal since 2005. Retailers that sell these are breaking the law. They face civil penalties of up to $16,000.1
If lenses are not the correct size, they can cause corneal abrasions and ulcers. They can also cause bacterial infections like keratitis.1
Some contact lenses that use paints and pigments are thicker and less breathable, which can also irritate the eyes.1
One study found that 85 percent of people who wore contacts were at risk for a severe eye infection because of “poor behaviors.”2
These behaviors include the following:
- Sleeping in contacts
- Swimming with contacts in
- Waiting too long to replace contact lenses and lens storage cases
- Not cleaning reusable contacts properly
- Not using contact solution
Always consult your doctor to obtain a prescription for colored contacts. Follow their advice for how to best care for your eyes.
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