APR 16, 2016 06:49 AM PDT

Forever Body Art: The Science Behind Tattoo

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

OOPS! THAT EXPERIMENT FAILED...

It's not your fault! Something went wrong with our formula.
Please begin your experiment again by clicking here.

If this error continues to occur please contact us at support@labroots.com.


Humans have been decorating their bodies with tattoos and piercings since at least the Neolithic era thousands of years ago. While modern technologies have expanded the range of available dyes, today's technique of tattooing remains arguably similar to the technique used long ago. That is, needles insert ink deep into the dermis layer of the skin so that it becomes permanent. But skin cells shed every two to three weeks, so why doesn't the ink get sloughed off along with the cells?

The answer has a lot to do with the immune system. In fact, tattoos can be thought of as an inflammatory process. Each time a needle punctures the dermis and delivers an ink load, the body sends macrophages to the wound site to "eat" the foreign pigment particles in an attempt to clean the wound. But the dermis layer ends up trapping the stained macrophages, giving the desired permanence effect.

While permanent, the ink can fade, blur, and even migrate with aging. And reversing a tattoo's effects is similarly painful as getting it in the first place. To erase a tattoo, lasers are used to break up the pigment particles until it's small enough to be cleared out by the immune cells. This process is lengthy as it is painful and could cause scarring, which could be considered another form of a permanent tattoo.
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
JUL 24, 2018
Videos
JUL 24, 2018
A wave of plastic is washing over the DR
Footage from a video taken by “Parley for the Ocean” on July 14, 2018, shows an actual wave of plastic washing over the shores of Santo Domingo...
AUG 05, 2018
Videos
AUG 05, 2018
Watch a Bird Take Flight in Super-Slow Motion
Many of us watch birds take off into flight right before our eyes every day, but it happens so quickly that we don’t get a chance to observe the mech...
AUG 08, 2018
Videos
AUG 08, 2018
The Basics of Genetics
Get the lowdown on some basic concepts in genetics, and learn how the field got its start....
AUG 13, 2018
Videos
AUG 13, 2018
Is Earth Running Out of Helium?
If current global demand continues, we can face a shortage of helium within the next 40 years. Helium is the second most common element after hydrogen...
AUG 13, 2018
Videos
AUG 13, 2018
One Cell was Consumed by Another in a Evolutionary Leap
A process called endosymbiosis may have given evolution a lot of help....
AUG 15, 2018
Videos
AUG 15, 2018
CBD Being Used in Stem Cell Research
CDKL5 (cyclin-dependent kinase-like 5) is a gene that is found on the X-chromosome, mutations to this gene lead to a rare genetic disorder. Scientists...
Loading Comments...