Tattoos have come a long way in popular culture. From their image as the disreputable domain of bikers and hoodlums, they’re now worn proudly by people of all ages and occupations. But while consumers know enough to look for health inspections and clean needles before getting that hummingbird on their ankle, there probably aren’t many who know where that ink will end up. The science on it might surprise you.
In case you don’t know, the modern method of tattooing involves an electric motor that pushes a needle into the skin anywhere between 50 and 3,000 times each minute. A tube feeds the ink through the needle and deposits it in the dermis, the second layer of skin. Whenever the skin is punctured there’s a risk of infection, but reputable tattoo artists are diligent about sterilizing equipment and using gloves, sterile needles, and single-use containers of ink and ointment.
But here’s the interesting thing: the ink that’s injected into your skin doesn’t stay put. In fact, researchers at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment have studied corpses with tattoos that were several decades old. As the CBC reports, the researchers found that “up to 90 per cent of the ink has disappeared from the skin.”
Where does it go? Researchers haven’t figured that out yet. One possibility is that gets carried through your bloodstream and deposited in your organs. It could also get passed out with body waste. Scientists have discovered, though, that certain pigments are more likely to end up in your lymph nodes.
That might not sound like a big deal, especially if your tattoo artist uses vegetable-based inks. The trouble is, even the most meticulous tattoo artists can’t guarantee the ingredients in the product. That’s because, like other items classed as cosmetics, tattoo ink isn’t highly regulated. Standards vary widely from one country to the next. As this Globe and Mail article notes, even the US has “no industry standards for ink ingredients.”
Believe it or not, the Centers for Disease Control report that some tattoo inks have even been found to contain printer or calligraphy ink. Definitely not the kind of chemicals you’d want injected into your skin.
But that doesn’t mean you should run out and get your tattoos removed. All that would do is fracture the pigments faster, dispersing them under the skin much sooner than would happen naturally.
However, if you’re thinking about getting a new tattoo, the research on ink dispersal?and the lack of regulation?should give you pause. At the very least, consider the size of any tattoos you might be getting. The more ink that goes into them, the more ink that’s going to leach out over time. And until researchers can find out for sure where all that ink is going, an ounce of prevention now could pay off big time later.
The good news is that you might not have to give up the fashion statement of a beautiful tattoo. Designers have embraced the trend of high-end temporary tattoos, and the best ones rival the real thing, as these flash tattoos show.
So, before you commit to getting permanent ink, consider where those brilliant pigments could wind up. Because a tattoo of a heart is one thing, but the possibility of ink in your bloodstream is quite another.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.