Getting a Tattoo Might Also Stain Your Lymph Nodes

By Leah Froats | September 14, 2017 2:42 pm
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

It’s not news that tattoos are hitting the mainstream, but a new study reported in the journal Scientific Reports reveals that tattoo inks’ nanoparticles are adding color to other parts of your body.

As the tattooed population knows all too well, the process of tattooing consists of placing insoluble deposits of pigmented ink just below the epidermis, or outermost layer of skin. As they also know, your body does pretty much anything it can to get that ink out — which is why new tattoos excrete ink, plasma, and lymphatic fluid through the epidermis while healing.

But what ink is left in the body gets additionally filtered through the lymphatic system. The ink-lymph mixture is carried through the lymph nodes, whose job it is to process and filter harmful substances from the body.

None of this is really news — tattooed individuals have displayed pigmented lymph nodes for decades.

But what is it, exactly, that the lymph nodes are filtering out?

Working out the Inks

There are a wide variety of tattoo ink formulas, with a big variance in composition based on the ink’s color. Black tattoos are frequently made of iron oxides and carbon, while colored inks can contain nickel, chromium, manganese or cobalt.

lymph-nodes

From the study: An example of green ink particles that leached into a lymph node. (Credit: Schreiver, et al)

According to the study, the two most common ink ingredients are carbon black and titanium dioxide, the latter as a white shade commonly used for mixing.

And just how big are the particles in those compounds? On average, particles range in size from as large as 100 nanometers to as small as 1 micrometer

To discover what particles end up in the lymph nodes of tattooed individuals, researchers focused on the nodes of four tattooed cadavers and one non-tattooed control. The study revealed tattoo particle pigmentation in two out of the four tattooed donors — specifically, blue and green pigments.

Think Before You Ink

The study found that it was the smaller nanoparticles of ink that were transported to the lymph nodes, but researchers couldn’t establish a size limit that would prevent the ink’s transport. Researchers also showed that ink deposits in them results in a chronic enlargement of the exposed nodes.

Now that the presence of these nano-scale metals and oxides in the lymph nodes of tattooed individuals is proven, figuring out exactly what that means is the next step.

Maybe next time you head to the tattoo parlor for a zap, ask your artist whether their tattoo ink contains macro- or nano-scale oxide particles—or maybe not.

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  • Bud Johnson

    Wow! I am a little concerned after reading this because I have several tattoos and some the cover a large surface area on my body. My concern is if the leaching of ink throughout my body causing damage that it would not normally sustain. I hope that more research is done on this because it could effect an individual’s health.

    • Jeanie Greer

      You should be concerned. Palpate your axillary lymph nodes (armpits). Seek out a physician who is versed on tattooing and lymphadenopathy. Information is power.

  • darryl

    100 nanometers is smaller than a micrometer. You may want to fix that.

    -d

  • Val

    This is very important if you are diagnosed with a cancer. The spread of ink to lymph nodes can cause an inflammatory reaction that would normally be undetected. However, during work up and cancer staging- a method for classifying the local, regional, and distant extent of the disease- these inflamed lymph nodes from tattoo ink can be incorrectly classified as being involved by tumor. This misclassification is due to the fact that inflamed lymph nodes have similar imaging characteristics as lymph nodes harboring deposits of cancer cells on PET scans. In theory, a false positive lymph node in the setting of a cancer diagnosis could change the treatment that is prescribed

  • neoritter

    I wonder if people with tattoos have higher rates of lymphatic cancer?

  • FredO

    Only doofuses disfigure and mutilate their bodies with tattoos—why not brand yourselves like cattle while you’re at it ?

    • John Gault

      They do. Why you expect otherwise is the insanity.

  • Jeanie Greer

    The body doesn’t like intrusion. Seeing those who have nearly covered themselves with tattoos, makes me wonder….WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? Medical science is now “painting” a frightening scenario of the downside of decoration. The cadavers are speaking out loud and clear.

  • OWilson

    Tatooing (in western society) was once a symbol of some shared experience.

    Today is is just a fashion statement, by exhibitionists.

    But like all primitive external displays, there is always someone coming to the party that does it more, better, and bolder, leaving you a little overshadowed!

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