People have been getting tattoos for millennia, but recent studies show some unexpected potential side effects of this permanent art form. As it turns out, a lot goes on in our bodies when we get tatted up.
Thanks to modern science, however, we’re better able to understand how our bodies live with ink—and how that ink can affect us when we exercise.
Yes, really. Stay with us.
First, it’s important to understand what happens when you get a tattoo.
There’s no way around it: Getting a tattoo hurts. What else can you expect from something that involves needles being punched into your skin over and over?
But the effects of a tattoo don’t disappear with the pain. A tattoo is forever (more or less), and surprisingly enough, we have our immune system to thank for that.
Ink from a tattoo gun punches through the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) to deposit into the dermis (the middle layer). The dermis consists of a gelatinous substance filled with blood vessels, sweat glands, and nerves. When the needle from a tattoo gun penetrates the skin, it technically creates a wound, so our body’s immune system reacts accordingly.
Cells called macrophages rush to the puncture site to begin “cleaning up” loose ink particles by removing them from the area. But some macrophages don’t make it out of the dermis and become trapped.
Dye that isn’t removed by the macrophages is soaked up by dermal cells called fibroblasts. Ink that is trapped in macrophages and fibroblasts becomes permanently suspended in the dermis, and as a result, it’s visible through the skin.
What happens next?
Our bodies don’t stop reacting to the ink after the initial healing process. In fact, the ink becomes something of a permanent intruder, as the ink-filled macrophages are regularly replaced by a younger version. That could potentially affect the way our sweat glands function, according to a new study.
Maurie Luetkemeier, professor of integrative physiology and health science at Alma College, conducted research to see exactly how tattoos may interact with our skin’s physiology. Luetkemeier and his researchers used 10 healthy men who all have tattoos on one side of their upper bodies. The age of the tattoos varied, but the subjects had an equal amount of un-inked and inked skin.
Next, researchers placed small patches with a sweat-inducing chemical on both tattooed and un-tattooed skin for 20 minutes. Scientists then removed, swabbed, and weighed the patches.
The tattooed skin produced half as much sweat as the untattooed skin but contained twice as much sodium. These findings suggest tattoos can permanently alter the skin, and Luetkemeier speculates the lingering ink-filled macrophages could be changing the chemical environment of the skin. Another possible explanation: The ink particles could be slightly blocking the sweat glands.
The good news is that the blockage isn’t serious enough to cause overheating.
Tattoos also have a few benefits.
The tattoo process is painful, but the rush is pretty powerful. Almost every tattooed person will reference the emotional boost they feel after getting the work done. So could there be a link between tattoos and self esteem?
A small tattoo-related study was conducted in the UK to find out if there is any connection between tattoos and positive body image. The 82 subjects were asked to rate their physical anxiety and body appreciation levels before, immediately following, and three weeks after getting their first tattoo.
The results showed that both men and women had lower anxiety and higher body appreciation and self-esteem immediately after getting the tattoo. It’s interesting to note, however, that men’s positivity kept increasing, whereas women reported higher levels of physical anxiety in the three weeks following.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, body ink carries some dangers, but ultimately, it’s a personal decision. In any case, the health benefits and drawbacks of tattoos certainly warrant consideration, particularly if you’re planning a piece.