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Tattoos may seem cool but turning skin into a canvas for artwork, messages and permanent cosmetic designs pose health risks, some of which can prove serious. That’s the word of caution from David Erstein MD, of New York- and New Jersey-based Advanced Dermatology P.C. He says the tattooing process penetrates the outer and inner layers of skin, paving the way for possible allergic skin reactions, local and systemic infections, rashes, inflammation, scarring, and even a potentially heightened risk for some cancers.
“The skin is the largest organ in the body, serving as a barrier to the toxins and bacteria surrounding us in our environment,” says Dr. Erstein, a specialist in allergy and immunology. “The tattoo artist breaks down part of this barrier by using a machine that creates literally hundreds of needle pricks in order to inject tiny particles of ink into the dermis – the skin’s inner layer.”
A new tattoo is literally a traumatic injury to the skin, Dr. Erstein says, and, as such, activates the body’s immune system, with white blood cells identifying and attacking the ink particles as foreign invaders. This response can lead to temporary pain and heightened sensitivity in the tattooed area, skin inflammation, and itching.
“The skin is the largest organ in the body, serving as a barrier to the toxins and bacteria surrounding us in our environment”
Even with proper “aftercare” of the tattoo, keloids — scar tissue – may develop at the tattoo site or granulomas, nodules that form around the ink particles, might appear, Dr. Erstein says.
Other possible health complications associated with tattoos include:
Individuals with pre-existing skin conditions like psoriasis need to be particularly careful before proceeding with a tattoo, Dr. Erstein indicates. In about 25 percent of psoriasis cases, a tattoo may prompt the growth of psoriasis-like lesions on or around the tattoo site.
Meanwhile, tattooing has gone from “exceptional” to the mainstream, with four in 10 adults between the ages of 18 and 69 in the United States now sporting some type of picture, design or message on their skin, according to a 2017 Statista Survey.
The widespread acceptance of tattoos – even in the workplace – leaves scientists feeling increasingly uneasy about tattoos’ potential long-term effects, especially health complications that may be related to contaminants — like titanium dioxide – common to tattoo pigments. Some of these pigments are also used in print toner and car paints, and the toxins in them have proven carcinogenic to animals, but not humans – yet, Dr. Erstein says.
Authors of a study published in a September 2017 issue of Scientific Reports express concern about how nanoparticles of pigment toxins found in the lymph nodes of tattooed individuals might behave in the body. These particles were less than 1 percent the width of a human hair. Earlier research, described in the British Journal of Dermatology, indicates that pigment nanoparticles travel beyond the immediate tattoo site and may be toxic to nerves and brain.
“Tattoo inks are unregulated by any government agency,” Dr. Erstein says. Does that mean tattoos should be avoided? “Not necessarily,” Dr. Erstein says, “but people must first carefully weigh the pros and cons of a tattoo and then, perhaps, talk to their physician before proceeding, especially if they have an underlying skin condition or immune system disorder.”
Choosing a reputable, licensed tattoo artist and ensuring that inking needles are correctly sterilized are obvious, first-step recommendations. Equal in importance, however, is the follow-up attention a patient should give a new tattoo to minimize complications.
D. Erstein offers these care tips:
Bio: Dr. David Erstein, board-certified in allergy and immunology and internal medicine, with Advanced Dermatology P.C.