By Ryan F. Mandelbaum
Tattoos are very cool and I do not want to say bad things about them. Evidence of tattooing dates back thousands of years, and the art form has a long history across the world in various cultures. Tattooing has associations with wealth, crime, or seafaring depending on where in history you look. Today, there’s no denying tattoos are everywhere.
But unfortunately, scientists haven’t really looked at the long-term effects of tattoos on the human body.
Researchers have long noticed ink stains on lymph nodes in tattooed folks, but weren’t certain which kinds of particles from the ink were actually ending up there. A new study analyzing deceased tattooed individuals with a high-tech x-ray light source looked at the specifics of the tiny particles that made it to the nodes and stayed there for a long time. While the lymph nodes of these deceased individuals contained a small amount of potentially toxic metals that are believed to be from the tattoos, it’s still unclear exactly what effects these particles might have.
That’s because, given that tattooing is a cosmetic choice, scientists haven’t really studied it. “Currently, basic toxicological aspects,” like how the body transports and breaks down the ink molecules, “are largely uncertain,” the authors write in the paper published today in the journal Scientific Reports. “The animal experiments which would be necessary to address these toxicological issues were rated unethical because tattoos are applied as a matter of choice and lack medical necessity, similar to cosmetics.”
The researchers took skin and lymph node samples from four tattooed deceased human body donors and two non-tattooed donors. They found ink in both the skin and lymph nodes of two of the four patients—one with blue ink and another with green ink. Further chemical analysis found elevated levels of aluminum, chromium, iron, nickel, and copper in both the lymph nodes and skin of tattooed individuals, and even found cadmium and mercury in one of the donors’ lymph nodes (but not in the skin—the authors thought maybe it came from a different tattoo not tested). All of the tattooed individuals also had higher levels of titanium in the skin and nodes, which the authors thought was unlikely to have come from the usual titanium dioxide sources, cosmetics and sunscreen.
The researchers also analyzed the skin and lymph nodes with x-rays from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, a large particle accelerator in France, and found that the bodies seemed to react to the tattoos in the lymph nodes—lipid levels were higher near the intruding particles. They note that these lipids may also have come from components of the ink.
While there are several acute issues that might come along with tattoos, from allergic reaction and inflammation to infection, there’s still question as to what the long-term effects might be. The authors here aren’t telling you that you should be worried, yet, as this is a preliminary study with only a few samples. Rather, they’ve recognized that lots of people are getting tattoos these days but the effects are understudied. It would probably be beneficial to understand what your body is actually doing with all of that ink, or even how it reacts to titanium oxide in cosmetics when it comes into contact with a wound.
One scientist not involved with the study, Wolfgang Bäumler from University Hospital Regensburg in Germany, said the work convincingly confirmed something he’s been studying: “Tattoo effects may be more than skin deep.”
I think you should get a tattoo because tattoos are dope (this is a biased statement, I have a family member who is a tattoo artist). But you should also know the risks, said Bäumler. “People getting a tattoo should know that colorants injected in the skin may cause skin problems like an allergic reaction and/or granulomas… People should also know that skin is eager to remove such foreign bodies from skin (tattoo colorant) via the lymphatic system, that is the job of the immune system in skin. Then, the colorant ingredients show up in the next lymph nodes.”