There’s no denying the popularity of tattoos. As of 2021, approximately 30-40% of Americans had at least one tattoo, with many having multiple. But, despite their prevalence, many people don’t consider what effects tattoos have on their skin or what tattoo inks are made of. As a credentialed cosmetic surgeon and skin expert, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how tattoos interact with your skin.
But first, let’s cover some basic skin anatomy:
The ‘skinny’ on your skin
Our skin is composed of 3 main layers, starting from outermost to innermost: the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. While these layers are all part of the skin, they are made up of slightly different tissues. These differences are important because they influence how tattoo ink behaves in each skin layer.
- Epidermis. As the outermost layer of skin, the epidermis is made up of mostly dead and dying skin cells. As such, it is not ideal for retaining ink.
- Dermis. The dermis is made up of younger, healthier cells and is your thickest layer of skin by far. Therefore, it can hold much more ink than either the epidermis or hypodermis.
- Hypodermis. As the deepest skin layer, the hypodermis is primarily comprised of fatty, oily tissue. Tattooing in this layer can cause ink to appear blurred, or “blown out,” as it mixes with fat.
While the dermis is always the thickest skin layer, it is thicker in some areas of the body than in others. For instance, skin on the back has a much thicker dermis than skin on the calf; therefore, it is easier for a tattoo artist to accidentally pass through the dermis into the hypodermis while tattooing thinner areas of the skin.
Do tattoos damage your skin?
A tattoo needle enters the skin between 50 to 3,000 times per minute. As a result, these micro-punctures can cause granulomas—small areas of inflammation—to form around the tattoo site. While this inflammation typically subsides on its own, keloids, or overgrowths of scar tissue, can develop within tattooed skin, particularly if the needle repeatedly enters the hypodermis.
Scar tissue can develop within tattooed skin, particularly if the needle repeatedly enters the hypodermis.
Dangers of tattoo ink
- Tattoo ink can cause inflammation. Tattoo ink can also cause inflammation in the skin because the body perceives it as a foreign substance, causing the immune system to go into overdrive. (Considering tattoo ink can include dyes, plastics, and other foreign materials, the body is well justified in this reaction.) In an effort to protect and heal itself, the body sends white blood cells to engulf the tattoo ink; but, since they are unable to digest the ink, the white blood cells attempt to isolate it, essentially suspending it within your skin’s layers.
- Tattoo ink may be linked to cancer. According to Penn Medicine, tattoo ink contains some ingredients that may be linked to cancer; specifically, a chemical called benzo(a)pyrene found in black ink is currently listed as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
- Tattoo ink may obscure signs of skin cancer. Another danger of tattoos is that they make it more difficult to detect early signs of skin cancer—particularly melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. For this reason, an artist should never tattoo over pre-existing moles, birthmarks, or other skin discolorations or abnormalities.
- Tattoo ink can spread. Tattoos fade over time because some of the ink is gradually absorbed by lymphatic vessels and eliminated by the lymphatic system. In fact, scientists have found tattoo ink contained in lymph nodes that are located in areas of the body nowhere near the tattoo site! The effects of this ink migration are still unknown, but there’s reason to believe that it may place undue strain on the body.
Black tattoo ink contains a chemical called benzo(a)pyrene, a known carcinogen.
Can tattoos provide any benefits to your skin?
While there’s no proof that tattoos can provide any benefits to your skin, “Conscious Ink: The Hidden Meaning of Tattoos” author Lisa Barretta says they can release endorphins (chemicals responsible for making you feel good) in your brain due to the sensation caused by the needle. This may be one of the reasons why some people become ‘addicted’ to getting tattooed.
Tattoo aftercare is essential for proper skin healing
Aside from choosing a highly skilled and qualified tattoo artist, proper tattoo aftercare is the most important action you can take for ensuring your tattoo—and, therefore, your skin—heals properly. Physician-only moisturizers will nourish and heal your skin, while broad-spectrum sunblocks will help protect your skin from environmental damage. My Lafayette cosmetic surgery center offers a full line of medical-grade skincare products ideal for tattoo aftercare.
A final word on tattoos
If you do choose to get a tattoo, make sure you go to a reputable artist who understands the interaction between tattoo ink and the various skin layers, as well as the importance of proper sanitation. If you’ve had a poor tattoo experience or simply grown out of your ink, learn about tattoo removal in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Alexandria below.
As one of the preeminent cosmetic surgeons in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dr. J. Kevin Duplechain has helped dozens of men and women restore their skin to a ‘clean slate’ with laser tattoo removal. Dr. Duplechain performs tattoo removal as an outpatient procedure in his private surgical suite, making treatments quick, easy, and convenient. To learn more about laser tattoo removal, schedule a consultation with Dr. Duplechain online or by calling (337) 456-3282.