Why Are Tattoos Permanent?


Your immune system tries to rid the body of tattoo ink for the rest of your life.

Tattooing is as ancient as modern man. These decorative marks have been found in cavemen and mummies, spanning many different cultures worldwide. The first modern tattooing machine was modeled after Thomas Edison’s engraving machine and ran on electricity. Today, 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo – and the numbers keep growing. While tattoos are no longer taboo, we should still understand their impact on skin health.

First, how do they work? Tattoo machines inject dye into the skin using small needles that puncture skin at a frequency of 50-3000 times per minute. The needles penetrate past the epidermis into the underlying dermis, leaving behind pigment in the entire area. The living dermis is composed of collagen fibers, nerves, sweat glands, sebaceous glands, blood vessels and basically everything that keeps skin connected to the rest of the body.

Every time the needle penetrates, it causes a wound in the skin and alerts the body to begin the inflammatory process- the skin’s method to deal with danger.

Cells of the immune system travel to the wound site and begin repairing the skin. These very cells are the reason tattoos are permanent. Specialized cells called macrophages virtually ‘eat’ the invading material in an effort to clean up the inflammatory mess. As these cells travel through the blood vessels, some of them are carried back, with a belly full of dye, into the lymph nodes while others remain in the dermis. In fact, if you have a full sleeve, chances are your lymph node near that arm is black - which can alarm a doctor if they cut into it.  Those remaining macrophages eventually die, but the dye remains. Turns out, according to a recent study, that new macrophages quickly take over the job of holding the tiny flecks of ink in place, meaning the ink outlives the immune cells - and thus stays in the skin for decades.

Caring for Tattooed Skin 

As skin initially heals, the damaged epidermal (surface) cells are shed and replaced by new, dye-free skin cells. This is why the color may look less deep and vibrant as freshly tatted skin. Tattooed skin is wounded skin, which can be itchy, red, inflamed and sensitive, with a high risk of infection. Healing time can range, depending on the individual, from weeks to months. Tattooing can trigger or worsen conditions like Psoriasis, and skin may take longer to heal in those with autoimmune disorders or taking immunosuppressive medication. Other considerations include the pigment type and equipment sterility. Some pigments, especially red, can be phototoxic in some people, resulting in skin irritation when exposed to sunlight. Any abnormal reactions should always be checked by a physician. 

Chronic sun damage can degrade collagen and increase elastin, as in solar elastosis. This means skin is thickened, dry and wrinkled – not exactly the perfect canvas for artwork. So sun protection is crucial before – and after tattooing. You may also want to keep skin healthy and hydrated by exfoliating regularly and keeping the barrier intact. Caring for tattooed skin doesn’t have to be complicated. With time, the colors will fade, as the cells renew themselves, but the epidermis can also become dull and dry when not properly cared for. So using enzymes, AHAs, and hydrating serums and moisturizers will keep the epidermis smooth and clear, revealing the bright pigments below. Perhaps the best way to protect your tattooed skin is to protect it from UV damage. A sunburn triggers an immune response that can push the ink particles deeper into the dermis, where it gets taken up by the lymphatic system and can pose systemic risk. Broad-spectrum UV protection and proper skin care on a daily basis will ensure that your investment remains bright and intact.

Find out more on my TED Ed lesson below!