Are Tattoos Harmful to Health?

Most of us consider human skin as just a tunic, but it is actually much more than a simple wrapper. It shields and protects, controls temperature and water content of the body, manufactures some very important vitamins and conveys sensation whether the coffee cup is too hot or the handshake too cold. Most of the complex structures of the skin, like the pain receptors, the nerve endings, and the sweat gland complexes are located deep inside a layer called the ‘dermis’. The dermis is protected by a covering called the ‘epidermis’, a fast growing layer, the top of which flakes off continuously, acting as a bumper to the dermis. It takes the brunt of most daily-life traumas, like rubbing, scratching and bruising. Normally nothing gets past the epidermis, excepting a bullet wound in the war-field, a knife attack from a backstreet assassin or the more common injection prick from the nurse.

Imagine the quite sleepy dermis waking up one fine morning to an unknown intruder. A dark blob of a complex chemical, delivered by a sharp needle, deep into the dermis, at a speed of 50 times a second, a plan more sinister than the ‘dermis’ had ever imagined.

The overwhelmed dermis does what it is meant to do. It sounds the fire alarm. Local blood vessels are dilated; cells that fight infections are recruited and quickly transported to the site. Suddenly the quiet town of dermis turns into a battlefield. Neutrophils, phagocytes and macropahges, all the top ranking anti-terrorism cells of the body move in, with an idea to gobble up and digest the intruder with strong intracellular enzymes. Human immune cells are programmed to do that. But human plans are much more sinister.

The Tattoo ‘ink’ is designed to be an indestructible chemical, resistant to intracellular degradation.

The activated immune cells, gobble up the ink and die. The dead cells contain the ink inside their dead bodies. The fibroblasts from a strong envelope, to contain the damage, making sure the dye would not fade with time. But the non-degradable ink remains inside those cells, permanently.

Tattoo done in an aseptic ‘licensed’ ‘hygienic’ parlor by an ‘authorized’ specialist is considered safe in the US and UK. But even US Red cross prohibits a person who has received a tattoo from donating blood for 12 months, while it is six months in the UK, just to make sure that you have not acquired a blood borne infection. Chance of a needle related infections like hepatitis and HIV could occur if disposable needles are not used. In 1995, after more than 13000 cases of tattoo associated hepatitis made headlines, licensing of parlors became stricter in the US. In 2006 Center for Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta, Georgia reported 44 cases of antibiotic resistant staphylococcus infection (MRSA) from unlicensed tattooists. As long as an approved dye is used, allergic reactions are rare. But many coloured tattoo dyes use mercury and azo whose safety is questioned. Some traditional tattoo inks contain metallic salt including toxic lead. It is estimated that up to 20 micrograms of lead may be present in a stamp-sized tattoo. It is estimated that 40% of the colours used for tattoo in US and Europe are not approved for cosmetic use. Metallic salts in tattoo can interfere with MRI scanning where strong magnetic fields used for these scanning, excite the metallic molecules. Burn, bleb and skin peeling of tattoo area after MRI scanning have been reported. In India, with a lax health licensing system, where we are trying to fight needle recycling and fake medicines, tattoo licensing is a nonissue.

Finally in the era where change is a norm we expect fashion to change - dress, shoes, jewelry, hairstyle everything. Cut hair would grow, new dress would replace old ones, recycled jewelry will give you the latest look, but the pigment delivered deep inside your dermis will not, unless, you are ready for another painful, expensive and long session to undo the tattoo by laser treatment.. A fingernail sized tattoo might need 5 to 10 sessions of Laser therapy to remove it, costing Rs. 500 to 1000 per session, taking a time period up to 12 weeks, with variable results. So outdated or not, it will be there for life. Be ready and prepared to explain that skull and snake stuff to your spouse, your kids, and perhaps couple of decades later, to your grand children.

If skin had a political affiliation, it would have put up a poster “ We want justice, we are not a canvas”

“But dad, its so cool”.

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