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The Effects of Tattoos on the Immune System

Tattoos have been applied for centuries, whether through ritual, cultural, and religious practices or simply to decorate the body. But even over time, the application process hasn’t changed, regardless of the type of tattoo—needles puncture the skin, causing a wound, as ink is inserted into the reticular layer of the dermis. This wound is perceived as an assault on the body, and the body responds accordingly so the healing process can begin.

The body’s process for eliminating any foreign invader is relatively the same. The skin barrier is the first line of defense. When the skin is injured and foreign invaders like pathogens enter the skin, white blood cells (macrophages) rush to protect against infection and consume the invaders. Proteins in the blood (antibodies) will continue to circulate in the bloodstream on the lookout in case this invader returns.

When it comes to tattoos, this immune response fails due to the size of the pigment particles being inserted into the skin. The particles are large, making it difficult for the macrophages to eat and destroy. The particles then become lodged within the cell. When the cell reaches the end of its life, the pigment is released only to be gobbled up by another immune cell. The lifelong persistence of tattoos may be due in part to this cycle of capture, release, and recapture of pigment.

This is thought to be the reason why eliminating tattoos is so hard, and why even the latest trend in semi-permanent or temporary tattoos are not fading as advertised. (If you’re not familiar, ephemeral tattoos are composed of small polymer particles. They are medical grade, bioabsorbable, and biocompatible, and the pigment is routinely used in food and cosmetics.) But even these temporary tattoos are sticking around.

Are distracted macrophages, full of pigment, interfering with their ability to seek out more dangerous invaders like pathogens? The consensus is no. Some researchers have argued that tattoos may boost the immune system. Anthropologists from the University of Alabama likened getting tattoos to going to the gym – each workout strengthens the body. Similarly, those with tattoos had higher antibodies and theorized they had a stronger immune system.

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