The Possible Negative Health Effects of Tattoos

Smiling man at work with tattoos

What used to be one of the more iconic signs of rebellion and counter-culture affiliation, or at the very least the sign of a sailor, is now fairly commonplace. People are getting tattoos at higher rates now than they ever have before.

Some estimations show that one out of every five adults has at least one tattoo. A Pew Research Center study found that number is pushing 40 percent among the 18 to 29-year-old demographic.

And society is adjusting. Openly showing tattoos is becoming more and more acceptable in the workplace, and military and government tattoo policies have changed as the old ones were negatively impacting recruitment numbers.

But there are a few negative effects of tattoos—especially from a health perspective—if you don’t do your homework and choose your tattoo artist carefully.

Common and uncommon risks that come with getting a tattoo include:

  • Not properly caring for a new tattoo, which may result in infection.
  • The tattoo artist not using sanitary equipment, which can spread any number of the same diseases that sharing a needle could cause.
  • An inexperienced tattoo artist may press too hard during the process on a sensitive part of the body such as the eye, which can cause damage (yes, it is possible to have your eyes, eyelids, inside of your mouth or virtually any other place on the anatomy you can think of tattooed).
  • Tattoo ink poisoning.
  • Allergic reactions to tattoo ink.

What about the long-term effects of tattoos?

According to a recent European lab study, researchers using advanced X-ray and other instruments analyzed the corpses of people with and without tattoos and found that those with tattoo pigment in their skin had nanoparticles—less than one-thousandth of the thickness of piece of paper—of tattoo ink captured in the body’s lymph node system.

At its core this would make sense—lymph nodes do their part for the body’s immune system by filtering foreign substances. Why wouldn’t they catch the contaminants from tattoo ink, injected directly into the second layer (or dermis) of the body’s skin?

Dr. Trevor Thompson, a dermatologist with Banner Health Center in Peoria, AZ said there aren’t any definitive studies that point to this being hazardous to long term health. But there is one way tattoos can end up being hazardous in the long run.

“We advise against covering pigmented moles with tattoo ink, as it can cause difficulty in diagnosing any change in the mole in the future,” he said.

Obviously, the danger exists for those vulnerable to skin cancer, as doctors monitor the change in coloration and size of moles over time to determine risk for and to diagnose skin cancer.

But, no substantial research backing up any paranoia around tattoo ink itself causing cancer or disease of any kind exists.

“The majority of potential risks from tattoo dye come from localized complications; bacterial and fungal infections on the site of the tattoo as well as allergic responses,” Dr. Thompson said.

When it comes to permanent self-expression, while most think about the stabbing pain of the tattoo gun and a few days of tenderness, you generally have little to worry about so long as the shop is reputable and the artist uses sterilized equipment.

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