By Jamie Collins, RDH, CDA
Are tattoos and piercings considered an art, or are considered stigma in the dental setting? The opinions about visible tattoos in a professional dental practice are widely varied.
I have worked in a multitude of dental practices throughout years, with each office different. This experience has allowed me to see how different offices operate, as well as the type of employees at each—good and bad. I have noticed an increase in visible tattoos and facial piercings on employees, ranging from a small one that is barely visible to full-sleeve tattoos on display. Which makes me think, how many are considered too many, and how visible should they be?
At the American Dental Hygienists’ Association meeting in Jacksonville last summer, I had the pleasure to overhear conversations among millennial hygiene students about what they thought about the career and what type of office and environment they hoped to belong to upon graduation. Being the curious person I am, I asked to join in and visited with a group of young women for a period of time discussing many subjects, including the idea of tattoos in the workplace. All six of the young students felt that tattoos are a form of self-expression and didn’t seem to think of tattoos as being unprofessional, although I did not notice any visible tattoos on any of the students while we were seated around the table. Many dental hygiene programs restrict facial and numerous ear piercings as part of promoting professional appearances; tattoos on the other hand will be harder to cover at times and are discouraged from being on display.
In every type of business, you see all types of people, ranging from very conservative to more expressive in clothing, hair, piercings, and tattoo expressions. It doesn’t make one right or wrong, and the beauty of our society allows us to be individuals and express ourselves as such.
Is too much too much?
But the question in dentistry is when does that self-expression cross the line of professionalism? Depending on the patient, they may base your professionalism and knowledge on your appearance, no matter your experience or education. Like it or not, it is human nature to make an initial judgment based on first impressions. I have been guilty of the same from time to time as many of us have. Think about when you have a patient who you are sure is living paycheck to paycheck based on their appearance and the car they drive into the parking lot. Do you think they can afford the $20,000 full-mouth reconstructive treatment plan that is presented?
I have been surprised more than once to see this type of patient who I was sure could not afford an expensive treatment plan turn around and write out a check for the full amount. It is the same principle based on appearance when a patient meets the hygienist for the first time.
Belonging to many Facebook discussion groups that provide a sounding board for multiple questions, I have seen posts venting or asking opinions about on appearances, including tattoos, piercing, and hair styles. I have seen dental professionals applying for jobs, asking if they should change their hair style or remove piercings to increase the chances of getting hired. For many, the openly visible self-expression may limit job opportunities drastically, whether in sales or clinically. The dentist has a right to hire those based on his or her own principles and values who will fit well with the staff and portray his or her vision of the business. I have known dentists who will not hire or allow temporary help with any visible tattoos or facial piercings, as they do not fit with the conservative patient population of the office. The dentist has a right to choose employees and establish a dress code that represents an image he or she chooses to portray.
Many patients, especially those of an older generation, can find piercings and tattoos to be offensive. For a patient who struggles emotionally to see a dentist, this may be a deciding factor to forgo future treatment. On the other hand, I know a dentist who himself has full tattoo sleeves up both arms. He is a talented dentist, and his patient population is as diverse. Many of his employees are tattooed as well.
Some of the most talented assistants and hygienists I know have visible tattoos, and many of those have found a limited job market in the area we live, which, in general, is a conservative city. Again, human nature comes into play, and the dentist hires an applicant who portrays the appearance and values similar to what the dentist chooses to display. The trends of brightly colored hair, in unnatural shades, is another trend I find that inhibits the chance of being hired, since many employers find it inappropriate in a professional place of business.
One beauty of the dental profession with PPE standards we are generally covered from neck to wrists, so tattoos can be hidden in most areas. Facial piercings can be removed if desired or necessary for the job, and hair can always be changed, if needed. The trend of artful tattoos is ever increasing and social acceptance is higher than ever. However, older generations may still find it questionable, and many are not afraid to voice their distaste in body art. No matter your choice in how you choose to express your individuality, it may or may not affect your success in the profession of dentistry long term. Stay true to yourself and portray the professional you are all while letting yourself shine.
Jamie Collins, RDH, CDA, resides in Idaho with her husband, Cory, and their four children. She currently works as a full-time hygienist as well as an educator at the College of Western Idaho. In addition, she acts as a content expert and contributor in multiple upcoming textbooks. She can be contacted at [email protected].