Tattoos aren't nearly as likely to earn you side-eye these days, so props to society for becoming a little more accepting. However, that doesn't mean dermatologists are cheering them on from the sidelines. It goes without saying to make sure your tattoo artist uses clean needles and safe practices, but beyond the potential for infection, what else could possibly be so bad? We talked it over with Dr. Jeremy Fenton of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC.
The Big Picture
It all comes down to the fact that tattoos can potentially cause permanent damage to your skin's functions. Apparently, a tattoo covering a large surface of your body (i.e. your whole back or a full sleeve) could affect your body's ability to regulate temperature during strenuous activity. "A recent study showed that tattooed skin produces less sweat, and the sweat had a different composition compared to normal skin," explains Fenton.
That said, more research needs to be done to truly understand those consequences. "For the average person getting a reasonably sized tattoo, I don't think it is of any concern," he says. That's good news! But not so fast.
The Itch For Ink
You also have allergic reactions to consider. He explained that ink can cross paths with chemicals in other beauty products and cause a reaction to formulas you were never allergic to before. In addition, you can actually develop an ink allergy years later. Who knew? If you do have an allergic reaction, in most cases, the only option is to remove it by laser or remove it surgically. Both options can cause scarring, which isn't exactly anyone's idea of permanent body art.
Laser tattoo removal itself also poses a certain risk. You are, after all, breaking up ink under your skin. "The ink can trigger a life-threatening type of allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, so it must be done under careful medical supervision," Fenton says. (If you experience nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, or shock at any point in the days after getting a tattoo removed, you should seek emergency medical attention).
Another potential risk to consider is skin cancer. No, tattoo ink can't cause cancer (that we know of), but tattoos do cover moles and blemishes. "It makes it more difficult to perform skin exams," Fenton says. "Tattoos can [also] impact the safety and quality of some medical imaging studies such as an MRI. Tattoo ink can sometimes burn or react in an MRI and affect the ability to get a quality image." OK, you got us. Tattoos = not so great for other general health care checkups.
It's also important to remember that tattoo ink isn't FDA approved. "It's not highly regulated, so there's a lot still unknown about the health risks of possible chemicals being present in the skin," says Fenton. He says that once you get a tattoo, the ink usually stays put. However, if for some reason the ink is disturbed and contained unsafe chemicals you didn't know about (because it's not regulated), you run the risk of releasing those chemicals into your bloodstream. Not fun.
Bottom line: there's just a lot we don't know for sure. While it's probably OK to go ahead with that tiny tattoo you've been plotting for a while now, it's important to remember there's always risks so you can take the right precautions and truly weight the pros and cons.