Brain and Body

Tattoos: The Science Behind the Permanent Body Art

December 15, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

black gloved hands drawing ink on bare skin in preparation for a tattoo
Photo credit: (CC0)

Your skin could be pierced with needles up to 3,000 times per minute.  

Some people say they love the pain of getting a tattoo, while others say it’s nearly unbearable. Some will take months or even years to contemplate a tattoo idea, while others tend to go out and get impulsively inked (no regrets?). But one thing’s for certain: that tattoo is there, and it’s there to stay.

Tattoos are often viewed as an act of modern day rebellion, but the practice is actually as old as civilization itself, as a fascinating TED video explains. In fact, the oldest decorative skin markings found in human remains date back to 6000 B.C. in Peru.

As the TED video points out, we shed nearly 40,000 skin cells per hour, which amounts to about a million per day. So why don’t tattoos simply flake off throughout time?

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The outer layer of your skin is called the epidermis, and in order for a tattoo to be permanent, the ink has to travel through to the dermis, the layer just underneath. The cells on the epidermis are the ones that we shed, so the dye trickles down just deep enough to evade our skin’s natural shedding process.

Here’s where it gets a bit cringeworthy: as your tattoo artist moves the tattoo machine across your skin, your body is actually being pierced with dye-filled needles at a frequency of 50 to 3,000 times per minute.

"Every time the needle penetrates, it causes a wound that alerts the body to begin the inflammatory process," the video explains. This signals your body to send immune system cells to the site of the wound and respond to the substance invading your body: the dye.

The special cells which race to your body’s rescue are called macrophages, and the TED video explains that they attempt to “clean up” the inflammation by eating up the dye. But the cells don’t eat all of the dye — the rest of it gets soaked into fibroblasts, or skin cells that remain in the dermis. This is how the ink remains visible and your tattoo becomes a permanent part of you.

To get a closer look at how the process of getting inked works, Smarter Every Day decided to hit the tattoo parlor and film someone getting “tatted” in ultra-slow motion. The footage is fascinating, and the artist explains that tattoo needles can have three ends or as many as 25 depending on the desired effect.

It’s important to note that the pain is not the only concern when it comes to getting a tattoo. Without properly caring for it, there’s a risk of infection, and some people can have allergic reactions to the ink. WebMD reports that in some instances, people with tattoos have experienced burning or swelling in the tattooed areas during MRI scans.

Plus, people tell themselves if they grow out of a tattoo or end up regretting it that they can just get it removed, but the process is much more difficult, painful, time-consuming, and pricey than you might think.

Tattoos are slowly but surely becoming more accepted by society as a form of art, expression, or personal choice. But nonetheless, if you’re considering getting inked, choose wisely.

Take a look at Smarter Every Day’s video below:


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