Scientific Details on Tattoos
Tattoos are applied by injecting ink into a person’s skin. An electrically-powered tattoo machine punctures the skin between 100 and 3,000 times per minute and reaches a depth of up to several millimeters.
In tattoos, the ink particles (commonly 2-400nm with 40nm average) are embedded in a protein envelope. A prominent network of connective tissue surrounds each of the fibroblasts containing ink particles, effectively entrapping & immobilizing any cell. The lifespan of these fibroblasts is unknown and may persist for the life of the individual.
Where Is Tattoo Ink In the Skin?
The tattooing process causes damage to the epidermis, epidermal-dermal junction, and the papillary layer (topmost layer) of the dermis.
The layers are homogenized (mush-like) right after the tattooing process.
One of the first responses of the body to tattooing is to stop the bleeding caused by broken capillaries that are leaking to the surface of the skin. The body’s autoimmune response will include swelling as cells such as neutrophils respond to the injury.
Neutrophils are phagocytic cells that clean up the area by swallowing the ink and flushing it through the lymphatic system.
The ink itself is initially dispersed as fine granules in the upper dermis, but gathers into more concentrated areas at 7-13 days.
What Happens to Ink After Tattooing?
Tissue reforms around the tattoo pigment in the form of a re-vitalized epidermis, a strengthened epidermal-dermal junction, and ink is trapped in dermal fibroblasts
Fibroblasts are cells that are important in healing wounds and are the most common connective tissue in animals.
After a month the epidermal-dermal junction is in the process of reforming and cells that a trapping the ink are taking their positions in this region. Some ink is being eliminated through the epidermis.
The epi-dermal junction will be completely reformed within two to three months with the tattoo ink present in dermal fibroblasts surrounded by connective tissue that holds the ink in place.
Side Effects of Tattooing
Swelling, Redness, Tenderness: common for 24 hours to a week
Scabbing: somewhat common when skin punctured and bleeding results from tattooing
Possible infection (Hep-C, HIV, staph, etc.): rare, but possible when tattoo parlors do not follow safety protocols
Scarring/Raised Skin: common with unskilled tattoo artists, occurs when tattoo is applied too deeply and roughly
Allergic Reactions to certain colors, esp. with red ink
How Tattoos Evolve In the Skin
Ink particles are moved into the deeper dermis over time due to the actions of mobile phagocytic cells (think immune cells) causing the ink to look bluish, faded, and blurry.
Examination of 40+ year old tattoos shows that the ink is in the deep dermis and also found in local lymph nodes.
With the presence of larger than normal amounts of migrating phagocytic cells, the chances of ink movement increases, thus accelerating the fading of the tattoo.
Some colors disappear completely with time: White, yellow, red, and flesh tones
Effects of Sun on Tattoos
During sun exposure many Langerhans cells undergo apoptosis (a type of cell death where cells break apart into many small fragments).
Other Langerhans cells migrate into the dermis and minor inflammatory reactions occur.
The inflammatory reaction is not restricted to the epidermis, but also involves the dermis. Such a reaction causes the recruitment of more phagocytic immune cells to the area.
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