What Makes A Tattoo Permanent?

Did you know that four out of ten adults in the U.S. between 18 and 69 have at least one tattoo?

They are permanent pieces of art that you can show off for your entire life and take with you to your grave.

But what exactly is it that makes tattoos permanent, and just how safe are they?

Humans have actually been marking their bodies with tattoos for thousands of years be it for religious reasons, social status, or even punishment. Today it’s more likely for reasons of self-expression or sentimental value.

But for all the focus we put on the meaning of tattoos, it’s less often that we think about how they got there in the first place, and what keeps them on your skin, you know — forever. Generally speaking, tattoos are permanent because the ink gets deposited beyond the epidermis—the outer layer of skin—and into the dermis, a deeper layer that contains blood vessels, collagen fibers, and nerves.

And this is done with a tattoo machine that uses tiny needles to puncture deep into the skin. One may think that the needles themselves are injecting ink into the skin, but that’s sort of a misconception.

The ink is actually held between the needles—similar to paint on a paintbrush—and after a needle punctures the skin, the ink between the needles gets drawn down. And when it comes to the permanence of tattoos, you can thank, or blame, your immune system.

You see, each time a tattoo needle pierces the skin, it causes a wound. Which, naturally, causes a response from your immune system to send cells called macrophages to that area to close up those wounds.

But when they get there, macrophages realize it’s not just a wound they need to deal with, but a foreign invader as well: the ink! So they try to get rid of it by eating it. Meanwhile, skin cells called fibroblasts begin to soak up the ink that the macrophages didn’t get to.

Some of those ink-filled macrophages and fibroblasts then get stuck in the dermis, which is actually what you’re looking at when admiring a tattoo: the ink that’s trapped inside of cells that attempted to destroy it. Kinda like a little graveyard. But what exactly is in the ink that those little guys are eating, and how safe is it?

Well, according to the FDA, there’s no surefire way to tell how safe tattoo ink is. Some research has shown some inks contain pigments used in printer toner and even car paint. And a report from the European Commission showed that tattoo ink frequently contains “hazardous chemicals” like heavy metals and preservatives that could cause bacterial infections.

Meanwhile, a study by the Australian government found that 22% of inks tested contained chemical compounds known to cause cancer. And while we’re at it, the FDA does not exercise regulatory authority over the pigments used in tattoo inks, but when a problem associated with tattoo ink is identified, they do investigate.

And even if the ink were deemed “safe”, tattoo ink could easily get contaminated with bacteria or mold via non-sterile equipment and cause bacterial and/or skin infections, and even spread bloodborne diseases like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Tattoo dyes can also cause allergic reactions like a rash, redness, or bumpy skin. Or something called a “granuloma” could also form, which is a small inflamed area that forms around material the body perceives as foreign.

Which is to say that getting tattooed can result in more than having your spirit animal permanently sitting on your shoulder.

Lots to think on before you get you “ink” on.

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