How Tattooing WorksBy Pete On March 16, 2012 Under Posts
A lot of people get tattoos or have had tattoos for years without really knowing how the process works. In order to better understand your choices for tattoo removal it is essential you learn what a tattoo is and why sometimes they can be so difficult to get rid of. This is really a simple process so don’t be scared off.
You may not know it but your skin is your largest organ. Human skin is composed of essentially two main layers that sit on a third layer: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis. The epidermis is the outer layer we can feel and touch. It protects us from germs, bacteria and pollutants in our environment and is our body’s first line of defense. The epidermis and the dermis sit upon the hypdodermis, which is a thin layer of fat. We don’t need to concern ourselves with the hypodermis, our focus is on the middle layer: the dermis. The dermis is the middle layer of skin and contains the following: blood vessels, lymph vessels, hair follicles, sweat glands, collagen, fibroblasts and some nerves.
Why do we care about the dermis? A tattoo needle penetrates the epidermis and deposits ink, or pigment, into the dermis. The introduction of foreign material into the body activates our immune system and our white blood cells ride to the rescue. These are called “phagocytes” and come from the Greek word “phagein,” “to eat” and the suffix “-cyte” used in biology to mean “cell.” A quart of healthy human blood is estimated to contain six billion phagocytes. The discovery of these guys led to the 1908 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Phagocytes basically eat any bacteria or foreign material to protect us from infection. Normally, phagocytes eat and move foreign particles to where they can be washed away internally by our lymph system. However, ink particles are too large for this too happen which is why the majority of the ink remains in place in the dermis forever and is very stable. Over decades, the pigment will tend to sink deeper into the dermis and become less visible when viewed from outside through the epidermis. This explains the fading and fuzziness of old tattoos.
After about two months the newly implanted ink pigment lying in the dermis becomes part of the connective tissue in the fibroblasts. (These cells produce collagen which gives skin its elasticity). Fibroblasts last forever and this is why tattoos do as well.
To remove a tattoo we have to go through the outer layer of skin, the epidermis to get at the ink. There are various ways of doing this; none are pain free and some carry serious risks of scarring and infection. Older tattoos that have sunk down deep into the dermis can take more time to remove as a result.
One of the variables, or unknowns, in tattoo removal is the type of ink used determines how easy or difficult the design may be to remove in the future.
Tattoo ink is a combination of pigment (coloring) and a carrier (solvent) and as the ink is injected into the body, in the US it falls under FDA regulation. According to the FDA, many ink pigments are “industrial strength colors suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.” That sounds pretty toxic and it is which is why under Proposition 65 in California, all tattoo artists must warn customers of the inherent toxicity of the ink.
But what is the ink made of? Back in Roman times we have an ancient recipe for tattoo ink:
One pound Egyptian pine bark
Two ounces of corroded bronze, ground with vinegar
Two ounces of gall (insect egg deposits)
One ounce of iron sulphate
After mixing, the area to be tattooed was washed in leek juice and the ink mixture was then rubbed into pricked and bleeding skin.
We don’t have to use insect eggs today but since manufacturers are not obliged to reveal ingredients we can only speculate what is inside. We do know heavy metals are frequently used, including mercury (for red coloring), lead (yellow, green), nickel (black) copper (blue, green) and iron (black) among others. In fact, some of the metals have reportedly caused problems with MRI scans. At least there aren’t enough metals there to set off body scanners at airports.
A recent advance in ink technology is “Infinitink” which claims its ink is easier to remove than traditional tattoo inks. This is due to their patented process of encapsulating the pigment in tiny balls which easily break apart under a laser releasing the coloring into smaller particles that the lymphatic system can wash away. Currently, only offered in a small number of tattoo parlors in the US and Australia, Infinitink only comes in black and maybe red. Time will tell if this stuff is the future but right now it looks like it is very much a work in progress.
Image credit: wholesale-in-china.org/uchospitals.edu