Getting the Tattoo

What’s happening to your skin when you’re getting a tattoo?

Getting a tattoo is like getting multiple injections of ink in a concentrated location on the skin – of course usually in a meaningful pattern according to the tattoo design. Tattoo needles take the ink through the epidermis (outer layer) into the dermis (second layer).

  • The epidermis is responsible for new skin cell production. Think about your skin peeling after a sunburn and scabs forming when you get a cut. This layer of the skin also produces melanin, dictating what color your skin is. Additionally, protective immune cells live in the epidermis. Think about how much nasty stuff your skin is exposed to on a regular basis. These immune cells are hard at work 24/7. First-degree burns are those that affect the epidermis.
  • The dermis has its own set of duties, including sweat production, sensation, hair growing, oil-making, and ferrying blood to and from the epidermis. Second-degree burns are those that affect the epidermis and part of the dermis.

The immune cells living in the epidermis don’t know that the needle piercing the skin is something you’ve voluntarily agreed to do (actually paying someone to do). They react as if the body is under attack, triggering the inflammatory response. You’re familiar with the immune response if you’ve ever cut yourself, scratched a bug bite, or gotten a sunburn. I’m going to go out on a not-to-flimsy limb here and say you’ve definitely experienced the inflammatory response during your lifetime.

When immune cells in the epidermis trigger the inflammatory response, the immune system goes on high alert, sending troops of specialized immune cells to the wound site. This is also why you feel pain during a tattoo (and other wounds) – your body is telling you that you’re under attack and you need to GTFO.

The ink delivered by the tattoo is taken up by immune cells called macrophages, which specialize in engulfing particles and digesting them to “clean up debris” at a wound site. Skin cells called fibroblasts also take up ink. Whichever way the ink goes, those cells stay in the dermis permanently, providing the “a tattoo is forever” quality that makes grandmothers everywhere furrow the brows and purse their lips in disapproval.

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