Skin

Updated 19 September 2017

You won't believe how far tattoo ink can travel in your body

Tattoos can end up being more than skin deep. Always make sure of the artist's reputation and the quality of the ink they use, as it can have far-reaching effects.

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"Think before you ink" is a good philosophy when it comes to tattoos, especially since they are difficult and painful to get rid of.

And now it seems tattoos are not only skin deep.

Microscopic particles from tattoos can travel through the body and reach the lymph nodes, researchers say.

Ink may contain contaminants 

Along with pigments, tattoo inks contain preservatives and contaminants such as nickel, chromium, manganese and cobalt.

"When someone wants to get a tattoo, they are often very careful in choosing a parlour where they use sterile needles that haven't been used previously. But no one checks the chemical composition of the colours, but our study shows that maybe they should," said study co-author Hiram Castillo. He's a scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

Affects the lymph nodes

The researchers said the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is the first to offer evidence that microscopic particles called nanoparticles from tattoos can travel into the body and reach the lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that produce blood cells designed to help fight disease and infections.

"We already knew that pigments from tattoos travel to the lymph nodes because of visual evidence: the lymph nodes become tinted with the colour of the tattoo. It is the response of the body to clean the site of entrance of the tattoo," study co-first author Bernhard Hesse said in a facility news release. Hesse is a visiting scientist at ESRF.

"What we didn't know is that they do it in a nano form, which implies that they may not have the same behaviour as the particles at a micro [larger] level. And that is the problem: We don't know how nanoparticles react," he explained.

Considering getting your first ink done?

A previous Health24 article reports that more and more people end up getting infections from tattoos and bad reactions from ink. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you put down the deposit for your first permanent artwork:

  • Do extensive research on styles, different studios and artists in your vicinity.
  • Be absolutely sure that you go to a reputable artist. Visit the studio beforehand, check the artist's portfolio for references and ask as many questions as you can.
  • Think carefully about placement and the texture of your skin. A good artist will be able to steer you in the right direction.
  • It's a good idea visit a dermatologist for a mole-mapping consultation beforehand, especially to scan the area you would like to get tattooed. Tattoos make it harder to detect moles, therefore it's important to be absolutely sure about the state of your skin.
  • Preparation is key. Exfoliate the area to get rid of ingrown hairs or bumps.
  • Signs of a tattoo-related infection include a rash at the site of the tattoo, and a fever. Take immediate medical action if you suspect an infection or reaction. 

Image credit: iStock 

 

Ask the Expert

Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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