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Tattoos are an increasingly common sight. We see them all the time on the street and even now commonly in the workplace. Stigma around tattoos has been reduced and they’ve been normalized. This is for good reason– a tattoo does not reflect someone’s character, but they can be beautiful, meaningful, and just plain cool.
But are there any physical side-effects of tattoos? Do they have an effect on the immune system? To answer these questions, we first have to understand how tattooing works.
A tattoo is a permanent deposition of insoluble ink that is injected into the dermal skin layer. After the ink is injected, pigment particles can be transported via the blood and lymph fluids or subject to phagocytosis by immune cells. Basically, the ink makes its way around the body. When the tattoo heals, it appears on our skin permanently because the dermis contains ink particles. Our lymph nodes, after receiving the circulating pigment, then contain ink too.
This pigment is a complex mixture of inorganic metals, oxides, polyaromatic compounds. All of these compounds are considered to be inert biologically, meaning they don’t react to anything in our bodies.
A paper in Scientific Reports from 2017 found that there is analytical evidence to support the transport of organic and inorganic pigments alongside toxic element impurities from tattoo ink. The researchers observed the transport of heavy metals and titanium dioxide from the tattoo site to the lymph nodes. Further, they detected changes in the structure of the tissue adjacent to the tattoo particles. In short, they found evidence of an alteration of molecules, which could cause inflammation under the skin and other adverse effects.
But in all, tattoos aren’t so bad. Our bodies adjust to them long-term. There was even a study in 2016 that suggested that those who were more heavily tattooed experienced less immunosuppression, and those without tattoos experienced a greater strain on their immune system. Tattoos, then, may even have a role in training our immune system to be more effective.
Whether you want a tattoo or not, it is always important to understand what you’re putting into and onto your body. Do your research, ask plenty of questions, and find out for yourself before making a decision.