Can Nurses Have Tattoos? All About Ink in the Nursing World

A simple and definitive answer to the question, “Can nurses have tattoos?” is, “It all depends.” There are many factors for a nurse or student nurse to consider before getting a tattoo or before adding to tattoos she or he may already have.

A recent Ipsos poll revealed that 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo. Most of these folks are under the age of 55. A third of those who have tattoos report having two of them. Approximately 90 percent of those who have one tattoo say they do not regret having it. This poll did not ask questions about the professions of those with tattoos or if they had experienced any negative feedback associated with their tattoos.

There has been a long-standing stigma against those who have tattoos. Historically, tattoos were associated with illegal activity. It was thought that someone with a tattoo had likely been in prison where getting a tattoo seemed to be a recreational sport. Getting a tattoo seemed to be something done only by those who were rebellious and resisted following rules.

Can Nurses Have Tattoos

As years have gone by, tattoos have become more mainstream and not quite as stigmatized as in days of yore. But those in health care professions are still at the top of the list of occupations that generally face rules in the workplace requiring tattoos to be covered.

Although there was a time when nurses with tattoos could not find a job, times are changing. Many prominent institutions that previously forbade nurses from having visible tattoos have relaxed the rules and now allow tattoos but with some restrictions.

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Nurses, Tattoos, and Rules

There is no official rule from the American Nursing Association (ANA) concerning tattoos for nurses. Nursing schools and health care institutions all have their own regulations regarding tattoos.

Nursing schools often have stricter rules about tattoos than do hospitals and other entities that employ nurses. Many nursing schools do not allow their students to have visible tattoos and require them to cover them when at school.

No matter your school’s policy, if you are a nursing student, think about employment opportunities in the future. Some healthcare employers may still be stuck in the “dark ages” and have rules against visible tattoos. The same is true if your current employer allows tattoos, your next employer may not allow them.

Some policies you may face when looking for a nursing position at a healthcare facility may include:

  • Completely covering up any visible tattoos with long sleeves, bandages, or make-up.
  • No tattoos that are visible above the neck, on your lower arms, or your hands.
  • No visible tattoos at all when wearing scrubs.

Keeping this in mind, you will likely encounter different rules at hospitals, nursing homes, schools, home health care facilities, hospices, doctors’ offices, and other healthcare employers.

Times Are Changing

As the general public is becoming more accepting of tattoos, health care institutions are loosening their policies forbidding visible tattoos. Some examples of changes in policies instituted just in the last few years include:

The Mayo Clinic. Up until January 1, 2018, all Mayo clinic staff were required to cover all tattoos. The policy changed to allowing tattoos to be visible “if the image or words do not convey violence, discrimination, profanity or sexually explicit content. Tattoos containing such messages must be covered with bandages, clothing, or cosmetics. 

Mayo reserves the right to judge the appearance of visible tattoos.”

A Mayo clinic spokesperson wrote, “While aspects of the [dress and decorum] policy are changing, employees are still expected to project a professional appearance and demeanor.”

Indiana University Health. This health center includes 16 hospitals. It recently nixed its 50-page dress code and replaced it with only five pages. They now allow nurses to have tattoos. The chief human resources officer explained that the new policy was part of the plan to move “from a rules-driven organization to a values-driven culture.”

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Pros of a Nurse Having Tattoos

Nurses report that there are actually benefits in revealing their tattoos. They can be an icebreaker and help make patient connections, putting patients at ease. They can also distract pediatric patients from focusing on unpleasant hospital experiences.

Tattoos can be an icebreaker and help form connections. Those who cannot reveal their own tattoos report how commenting on a patient’s tattoos opens up communication. As the patient explains the meaning behind their tattoos, they become more relaxed and comfortable. This can be a great advantage when the patient is facing a difficult or uncomfortable procedure.

Nurse Nacole Riccaboni, a critical care nurse at an Orlando, Florida Hospital, explained to Today, “I have tattoos on both arms, all the way up to my shoulders, all the way down to my wrists, so my entire arms are covered, and that’s definitely something that’s been a barrier. I work at a hospital where tattoos need to be covered, and I think it’s just sad because mine are about my family and my son, and they’re symbols of hope to me. I would love to be able to show those to patients because sometimes they need those symbols of hope.”

She continues, “I work in the ICU (intensive care unit). You definitely meet people who aren’t in great conditions, and I see their tattoos and I ask them what they mean to them. There’s always a story there.”

Tattoos Can Distract and Comfort Pediatric Patients.  Nurses with tattoos often find it easier to develop a rapport with pediatric patients who ask questions about the tattoos. When pediatric patients undergo an unpleasant or uncomfortable procedure, they can be distracted by looking at and talking about a nurse’s tattoos.

Cons of Nurses Having Tattoos

In addition to the already discussed long-standing stigma against tattoos, associating them with criminal activity, there are other cons to nurses having visible tattoos when engaging in patient care:

Tattoos can trigger unpleasant memories. Just seeing tattoos may make someone flash on unpleasant memories associated with tattoos. Everyone knows that Holocaust survivors were tattooed with numbers on their wrists when they arrived at concentration camps. Although it is unlikely that today’s nurses will be caring for a survivor, there are other people with similar bad memories associated with tattoos.

It may be that tattoos in general will not trigger a bad response, but seeing a specific tattoo may be a trigger for an unpleasant memory. This is particularly true if the tattoo is associated with a gang or is of profanity, a weapon, or any number of symbols that can trigger a bad reaction.

They appear unhygienic to the older population. Based on old stereotypes, some older people still associate a tattoo with a person who does not practice good hygiene habits. This can make them wary of the care provided to them by a nurse with a tattoo.

Visiting family members may disapprove of tattoos. Even if your patient is fine with your tattoo, you may face disapproving family members who are visiting and may cause a bit of a stir when they see tattoos on their loved one’s nurse.

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Despite All the Changes, Those With Tattoos Are Still Stigmatized

A recent study of whether people with tattoos are stigmatized by society was published in Psychology Today. The authors of the study found that people with tattoos are generally perceived negatively despite the increase in popularity and acceptance of tattoos. They are thought to be promiscuous, uninhibited, and incompetent.

Women with tattoos are judged harsher than men. They are generally thought to be heavy drinkers and less intelligent, less caring, and less honest than those without tattoos.

Those with tattoos are often discriminated against, particularly in the workplace. Many companies, not just healthcare employers, can legally refuse to hire someone who has a visible tattoo that goes against a company’s dress code even if that person may be otherwise qualified.

One surprising finding was that people who themselves had tattoos still expressed negative perceptions about other people with tattoos. The authors of the study were somewhat puzzled by this response but concluded that perhaps those with tattoos had internalized the stigma against themselves.

Tattoos May Limit Your Nursing Job Opportunities

Although nurse employers are becoming more aware of the decreasing stigma against nurses who have tattoos, that stigma has not totally evaporated. Even those progressive employers, like Mayo Clinic, that no longer require the covering of all tattoos still have restrictions on which type of tattoos can be visible.

Many other healthcare employers still do not allow employees to have visible tattoos. Just because you may currently work for an employer who allows tattoos, you do not know what the next one will require if you change employers. In every healthcare work environment, your personal appearance is what makes an impression on the patient and can make a difference in the level of trust and acceptance they feel for you.

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