The Truth About Tattoos & Your Immune System

Photo by Cody Black

Whether you have tattoos or not, it's fascinating to consider that they've been a practice of humankind for thousands of years despite the fact that we still know so little about how they actually work. Ink is injected through the skin, but given rapid cell turnover rates, the movement of fluids within our bodies, and our fierce immune systems, how the ink remains in one place is enigmatic.

Tattoos and the immune system have a symbiotic relationship.

Contrary to popular belief, the pigment doesn't stain your skin and stay there. A study published earlier this week in the Journal of Experimental Medicine sheds new light on how our bodies interact with tattoos. A type of white blood cell called a macrophage, which is essentially a vulture cell that feeds on unwanted debris entering your body, plays a starring role in the health and vitality of your tattoo. When you get a splinter, or dirt in a cut, or, yes, some fresh ink, they gather at the site of the wound and begin chomping away at the intruder to keep your body safe. These macrophages take on the color of your tattoo, but scientists weren't sure whether the macrophages stayed put or another mechanism was at play in keeping the tattoo ink alive.

The study showed that the macrophages do die and release the ink they are holding, but your body interprets this as fresh ink. That means that new macrophages come to gobble it up, and the cycle continues. While this particular study utilized mice, the researchers suggest that a similar biological process is at play in humans, too. While sun damage is cited as one of the main reasons for tattoos fading, the researchers think that, over time, macrophages die off and are not replaced. In other words, the ink is dissolved in the human body. Interestingly, they're using these findings to test a new method of removal—the extraction of macrophages.

Photo: Kelly Kikcio

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Got a new tattoo? Here's how to take care of it.

So if you want to keep your new tattoo bright and crisp, take natural measures to support your immune system. Knowing that the ink is heavily processed by your white blood cells, it's best to find a tattoo artist who uses ink that's nontoxic. Many old-school tattoo fanatics have found heavy metal toxicity after getting several tattoos, emphasizing the importance of healthy ink, spacing them out, and caring for them properly.

"Like all wounds to the skin, tattoos will heal better under greasy conditions," said holistic dermatologist Cybele Fishman, M.D. She recommends using a greasy ointment like Vaniply, Waxelene, or Cerave Healing Ointment twice a day. Steer clear of Neosporin (also known as Neomycin), as Dr. Fishman pointed out it's one of the top 10 contact allergens in the United States. Sarah Villafranco, M.D., skin care expert and founder of Osmia Organics, said, "Our lip repair is my favorite thing ever for tattoos! And straight up petroleum jelly is not a bad choice either, if you don’t mind using a petroleum-based product."

Dr. Fishman maintains that you should wash the area with fragrance-free soap and warm water daily, avoid picking, and protect the area well with sunscreen. "If you are having tenderness or there is pus in or around the tattoo, see a physician—you may need a topical antibiotic or an oral antibiotic if the infection is more severe," she said.

Thinking about getting more tattoos? First, find out which is safer: machine or handpoke?

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