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Tattoo Particles Circulate through the Body, May Impact Health

While some may find tattoos a bit unsightly (definitely not me, I have like ten), they’ve long been considered to be more or less safe. Yeah, you’re stabbing yourself with a needle a few million times, but provided you can keep the area clean and avoid infection, there wasn’t really too much concern — especially with more modern safety practices.

That may change thanks to a new report by some researchers. They claim to have the first substantive evidence that tattoos leave lasting impacts on your physiology, namely your lymph nodes, an important piece of your immune and circulatory systems.

To conduct the study, scientists from Germany and the European Synchrotron in France were able to detect nano particles of ink from a tattoo that had been deposited in nearby lymph nodes. They found that the tattoo ink, as it breaks down, is transported and stored within the body. In itself, this isn’t necessarily an issue, but it could very be if the tattoo artists aren’t using high-quality and biologically safe dyes and ink.

“When someone wants to get a tattoo, they are often very careful in choosing a parlor where they use sterile needles that haven’t been used previously,” one of the study’s authors, Hiram Castillo, told “No one checks the chemical composition of the colors, but our study shows that maybe they should.”

Tattoo inks can have a number of toxic materials like chromium or nickel, and the chemical composition of the pigment can be altered by other preservatives and stabilizers. Carbon black seems to be well-tolerated (making me feel a little more confident in my all-black set of tattoos thus far), but others like titanium white can delay healing due to reactions with the body.

Regardless, all of these pigments eventually are either broken down by phagocytes (the white blood cells you probably remember from the magic school bus) or steadily migrate further into the body until they are deposited in the lymphatic tissue. These could cause potential health issue down the line, as researchers noted that carcinogens and other undesirable materials could end having long-term impacts on health. Now, though, the issue is that it’s not clear how big of a problem this may be.

“We already knew that pigments from tattoos would travel to the lymph nodes because of visual evidence. The lymph nodes become tinted with the color of the tattoo,” Bernhard Hesse, one of two lead authors on the study said. “It is the response of the body to clean the site of entrance of the tattoo. What we didn’t know is that they do it in a nano form, which implies that they may not have the same behavior as the particles at a micro level. And that is the problem—we don’t know how nanoparticles react.”

From here, the goal will be to a test for a link between tattoo ink with known toxic components and health issues or complications from the tattoo itself. It may be some time yet before we know, definitely what kinds of effects — if any — nanoparticles have on our health. And given that about 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, this is definitely something worth looking into.

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