Tattoos are both a modern adornment and an ancient form of symbolism. Their cultural significance spans thousands of years and nearly every continent. According to the Smithsonian, tattoos have been well-preserved on mummified Egyptian bodies and evidence of tattooing can be traced back to the Iceman who lived more than 5,000 years ago.

Today, nearly 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo according to a 2016 Harris Poll. Of the respondents who have a tattoo, 7 in 10 had more than one. Modern day tattooing techniques are drastically different than the methods used in ancient civilizations. Some would argue that they are more safe and sanitary than primitive tattooing methods, but researchers have found evidence to the contrary.

The Hidden Dangers of Inking

During the tattoo process, the artist ideally deposits the ink 1-2 mm deep within the skin. However, because there is no regulatory requirement for tattoo artists that dictates certification or experience requirements, it’s relatively easy to encounter a tattoo artist who goes deeper than this standard. Even the most experienced and reputable tattoo artists could instantly penetrate deeper into the skin if a customer happens to jump or react while being tattooed.

It is well documented that tattooing comes with certain risks, such as skin infections, allergic reactions to the ink, and blood borne disease. Should a tattooed individual experience one of the risks, it is typically easy to spot. Unfortunately, there are other concerns that lie underneath the surface.

What Happens to Tattoo Ink in the Body?

A 1996 study published in Dermatologic Surgery noted that tattoo pigments can migrate away from the tattoo site and travel throughout the body. This study found tattoo ink in the lymph nodes due to the suspicious development of black lymph nodes thought to be metastatic disease in a patient with malignant melanoma. Through elective lymph node dissection, researchers found that the dark appearance of lymph nodes was due to migrated tattoo pigments.

Recently, a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports sought to further map the effects of tattoo pigment on the body. Researchers used synchrotron-based x-ray fluorescence and synchrotron μ-FTIR analysis to study the levels of pigment particles present in deceased subjects. The elements Ni and Cr, which can be carcinogenic, were present in elevated levels in the skin and lymph nodes. Additionally, biomolecular changes were found that are believed to be initiated by the introduction of tattoo particles. Researchers concluded that tattoo particles are permanently present in the body and can lead to lymph node enlargement.

The Implications of Inking

Between these two studies, there are multiple implications that consumers and medical personnel should note. For individuals considering a tattoo (or more), it’s important to note that the long term effects of pigments introduced in the body are just now being discovered and, based on recent research, may increase the risk of cancer due to the stable presence of carcinogenic substances.

Those in the medical and scientific communities should be aware that the diagnosis and treatment of metastatic diseases in tattooed individuals may require additional, in-depth lab tests. While standard imaging equipment may pick up the presence of dark masses, only testing capable of analysis at the nano-level can determine if the masses are truly cancerous and in need of treatment or appear dark due to the presence of tattoo pigment.