In our last post we talked about a possible problem with tattoos—that tattooed skin sweats much less than virgin skin. Today, we look at the big picture of tattoos and health.
First, while health issues can arise, most people who get a tattoo have no complications at all. But, to help prevent problems, here is some useful information.
How tattoos work
The tattoo needle injects micro-droplets of ink, composed of metallic salts and organic dyes, into the dermal (middle layer) of the skin. The body treats this as an invasion of a foreign substance, and mounts an immune response. The body basically tries to “eat” the dyes to get rid of it, but cannot, it “contains” the foreign substance in little packages of scar tissue. That keeps the inks in place so they don’t spread.
Problems with tattoos
A New York City dermatologist, Dr. Marie Leger, conducted a study in Central Park. She randomly asked 300 tattooed people if they had any problems with their tattoos. About 10% said they did. Mostly this was temporary itching and swelling, but some had more serious issues such as infection and long-term itching. Other research has shown about a 3% infection rate, and 22% of people noticed itching lasting over a month.
Some people are sensitive to the metals in the dyes, and it is especially good to avoid inks with nickel or mercury. Red, green, yellow, and blue are most likely to cause allergies. Sometimes the first tattoo doesn’t cause problems, but subsequent tattoos cause itching, especially with red.
Of the 3% infection rate, the most common is due to the staphylococcus bacteria, and may require oral antibiotics to cure, but rarely causes serious problems. The biggest concerns are hepatitis B and C, and HIV, which are transmitted via blood. This is why the most critical issue is to ensure you have a tattoo done under sterile conditions.
Especially newer tattoos are more sensitive to sunlight, so sunscreens are important to avoid swelling and itching. Some people note long-term sun sensitivity, more with yellow and red inks.
Covering up skin lesions
Tattooed skin makes it more difficult to see any new skin lesion, including skin cancer. See a doctor—preferably a skin doctor—if you note changes or growths in tattooed skin.
This is the biggest issue noted in large surveys of people with tattoos. About 25% regret their tattoo later. Often the tattoo looked right at the time, but now doesn’t fit with their lifestyle.
Good news about immune system
A 2016 study from the University of Alabama (USA) showed that, in some ways, having a tattoo strengthened the immune system, helping each subsequent tattoo usually heal faster.
How to tattoo safely
Make sure the tattoo studio looks clean and that the artist uses sterile gloves. The studio must have a surgical autoclave (heat) to sterilize the instruments to avoid serious diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Make sure the needles used come from a sealed sterile package, and the dyes are fresh and haven’t been used before.
It is possible to remove, with various lasers, most tattoos, but not all, and sometimes even after multiple laser sessions, there is still some remnant of ink visible. Anytime you get a tattoo, think that this will be a permanent change. More modern inks are being developed that are easier to remove. Still, laser removal is going to be more costly, time consuming, and painful than getting the tattoo, so always think before you get inked.
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