ADVICE: Does tattoo ink linger inside me?

There’s more to body art than self-expression, with research suggesting ink shows up in lymph nodes and elsewhere in the body.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read July 9, 2021
tattoo ink inside

Are there long-term health implications for getting a tattoo? Getty

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I am thinking about getting my third tattoo, but I have read some studies that show tattoo ink can show up in other parts of the body — like lymph nodes. Is this dangerous?

Signed, Inked

Dear Inked,

Tattoo enthusiasts may be more preoccupied with what’s going on their skin than what’s happening under the surface. But some may be surprised that research suggests there’s more to body art than skin and self-expression, with tattoo ink showing up in lymph nodes and elsewhere in the body.

It’s normal to be concerned about what this might mean for your health, but Dr. Alexandra Easson, a breast and melanoma surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, suggests that pigmented lymph nodes caused by tattoo ink is not that unusual.

The reason for this is simple. Tattoo ink penetrates well past the epidermis or what’s known as the top layer of the skin, and the needle that contains tattoo ink travels deep into the layers of the skin, where nerves and blood vessels are located.

This causes bleeding and pain and it also sets off another reaction in the body — it activates specialized immune cells that are supposed to get rid of any foreign particles, such as tattoo ink from the tissue. But because the ink needle sinks about two millimetres into the skin, these specialized cells are unable to get rid of most ink particles, which is what makes tattoos permanent.

And it’s not just the lymph nodes that may be affected — the ink may also travel to other parts of the body, such as the liver. This may be unsettling when you consider that the lymphatic system plays a critical role in the immune system, and that the liver helps to remove toxins from the body. Still, there is no research available on the long-term impact of tattoos on the body, but there is also no evidence to suggest that tattoo ink can be hazardous to your health.

“I am not aware of any negative effects from tattoo ink staining lymph nodes,” says Easson.

While this is good news, getting inked isn’t totally risk-free either. Tattoo-related infections can show up immediately or afterwards, and can range from a simple rash to an abscess, which may require medication and surgery to treat. It’s important to do your research and understand how to care for your tattoo. Remember, it’s a wound that needs to cared for like a wound. That includes proper bandaging, cleaning and knowing when to see a doctor.

Pigmented lymph nodes mistaken for cancer? 

The potential risks of tattoo ink garnered some attention after a report that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine about a woman whose doctors suspected had lymphoma after finding swollen lymph nodes under her arms and in her chest. The inflammation was actually a result of a reaction to the ink from an old tattoo. Pigmented lymph nodes have also been mistaken for melanoma — the most serious type of skin cancer — but according to Easson, such a mix-up would be unlikely.

“Tattoo nodes cannot be mistaken for melanoma under the microscope when read by the pathologist,” she says. “We primarily use radioactive dye to identify and remove the nodes. So if I saw a number of pigmented nodes in the context of the patient having tattoos, I would remove only the radioactive ones.”

So although tattoo ink travelling to your lymph nodes does not lead to any known health complications, they aren’t completely without risk. To make sure all goes well, use a reputable tattoo artist, get references from other clients, and check that they use disposable needles and unopened ink to prevent infections.

Is there something about health that you (or a friend, wink, wink) have always wondered about, but are too embarrassed to ask? Send a note to info@healthing.ca. We promise your ‘friend’s’ secret — and identity — is safe with us!

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