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Almost a third of American adults are “inked,” including 22 percent who have several tattoos, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey. But when you stick ink-filled needles into your skin, is it bad for you — or perhaps beneficial?

It makes sense that your immune system reacts to the invader penetrating your body’s first line of defense. White blood cells called macrophages attack the ink to break it down and dispose of it via your lymphatic system. But research finds that some ink droplets may remain in your system — sometimes even coloring your lymph nodes — potentially exposing your body to carcinogenic or otherwise harmful materials in inks.

Still, research on the long-term effects of ink on and in the body is inconclusive.

Tattooing is regulated in the United States by local laws. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the sale of cosmetic inks, investigates reports of its ill effects, and issues safety advisories. Yet the agency admits that it “traditionally has not exercised regulatory authority for color additives on the pigments used in tattoo inks.”

“Although a number of color additives are approved for use in cosmetics, none is approved for injection into the skin,” the FDA warns. “Many pigments used in tattoo inks are not ­approved for skin contact at all. Some are ­industrial-grade colors that are suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.”

Several case studies note a concurrent rise in skin cancers and inking, but they do not find direct causation between the two. “Both the incidence of melanoma and the number of tattoos have been increasing in recent years, but a possible carcinogenic effect of tattoos remains unproven,” conclude the authors of a literature review published in 2018.

Other research suggests that your body’s response to tattoos may actually strengthen the immune system.

Biocultural medical anthropologist Christopher Lynn, PhD, at the University of Alabama, studies traditional tattooing in Samoa and modern inking in the United States. In several studies of modern electric tattooing, he has found that “people with more tattoos have a more immediate immune response and higher levels of the antibodies lining the body’s mucosa, which is the frontline in the fight against infection.”

Modern inks may pose a different threat. For a study published in Frontiers in Immunology in 2022, researchers began assessing the effects of common ink pigments containing possible toxins, including cobalt and zinc. “The problem is that side effects can take decades to develop — think, for example, about cigarette smoke and lung cancer. So if there is a big problem, we will know, but not for years,” says colead author Dr. Thierry Rabilloud of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Still, Lynn believes tattoos work like a vaccine or like exercise: “A little bit is actually good for you and prepares your body to fight off germs. Regular exercise provides immune-function benefits through repetition, not necessarily single visits to the gym. We think this is similar to how each tattoo seems to prepare the body for vigilance.”

Michael Dregni

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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