A series of popular science articles have recently been touting the health benefits of tattoos, specifically their ability to boost your immune system. Most are based on a study led by Dr. Christopher Lynn at the University of Alabama. But is a little ink really the cure for the common cold?
The answer is, as is often the case, not as simple as many of these headlines might suggest. The study focused on a group of 29 people visiting a tattoo parlor in Alabama for a new tattoo. The researchers tested both the levels of cortisol—an indicator of our body’s stress response—and Immunoglobin A (an antibody that helps our body fight infections, called IgA for short) in each person before and after getting their new body art. In addition to monitoring our body’s response to stressful situations, cortisol also is known to act as an immunosuppressant, i.e. an inhibitor to our body’s natural defenses. The tests were meant to quantify any changes in the body’s immune system functions before and after getting a tattoo.
The study revealed that those with no pre-existing tattoos experienced a greater strain on their immune system (a larger dip in their IgA levels) possibly due to greater feelings of stress. Those on their second, third (or twelfth) tattoo instead experienced a surge in their IgA immediately following their inking session. Their bodies appeared to be less stressed by the experience having gone through the process at least once before. The researchers titled the paper releasing their result “Tattooing to Toughen Up.”
However, it’s not clear how long these surges in immune system strength last beyond the few minutes post-inking. The researchers also note the possibility that the pool of repeat tattoo customers could possibly be biased toward individuals with healthier immune systems in general. If someone with a weaker immune system has a bad response or a long healing period after getting their first tattoo, they may not return for a second.
How Do Tattoos Work?
Of course, we can only talk about possible health benefits for tattoos if we are talking in the context of ink applied via clean and sterile tattoo equipment. We are frequently shedding parts of our outermost layer of skin, called our epidermis, so to gain permanence, ink for tattoos is injected into the dermis, a lower, more stable layer of skin about a millimeter deep. So when you view a person’s tattoo, you are actually looking through their first layer of skin.
To get beneath the epidermis, tattoo ink is injected via a needle (usually one that is electronically powered) with between 50 and 3,000 pokes per minute. Thus, to minimize infection, the needle, as well as the tubing that draws the ink into the machine, needs to be completely sterilized between uses. Additionally, as much equipment as possible is used only once, items like the ink and ink containers used for each sitting. And of course, clean or gloved hands are a must.
So while the jury is still out on whether or not tattoos can toughen you up against disease long term, don’t rush out to get a tattoo solely in hopes of staving off the common cold. Tattoos will fade over time, as your white blood cells launch a prolonged attack against the ink particles they see as invaders. However, the ink particles are much, much larger than the white blood cells trying to break them apart, so to fully remove a tattoo, a laser is needed to break up the ink into smaller pieces. The process of removing a tattoo is much longer and much more painful than the act of getting the tattoo in the first place, and thus will require quite a bit of toughening up to endure.
Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.