How Does Tattoo Ink Stay “Permanent”?

Ever thought how does tattoo ink stay in your skin so permanently? For the record, humans shed around 1,000,000 skin cells every day, so it’s pretty difficult for anything to stay on the surface of the skin – anything drawn onto it would gradually flake or get washed off. When getting a tattoo, the ink is inserted into a deeper skin layer, called dermis, that doesn’t flake off – and to reach it, tattoo guns use sterile mechanized needles that do the insertion by puncturing the skin with high frequency (of 50-3000 needle pushes per minute) and penetrate the skin up to 1.5 mm. When we look at the tattoo, what we actually see is the color inserted deep into the fibers and nerves of the dermis. Dermis’ cells are very stable, so the ink particles would only slightly fade over time and under the influence of the sun exposure – but are meant to stay in your dermis for good – unless you decide to break them with laser.

So how come the lymphatic system doesn’t expel the ink particles? The process involves damaging the skin, so the ink in it should be recognized as a foreign object, right? The immune system will try to throw its battle axe, of course. Its weapon are the cells known as macrophages, which travel to the site of the wound and start eating up the ink that has been deposited there. These attempts last throughout the tattoo owner’s life. This is another reason why the tattoos fade over time – but the immune system’s cells are not capable of fully disintegrating the ink, which is way too big a bite for them, so they just sit there and stick around for so long. To make things harder for them, other cells and parts of the skin, such as fibroblasts, suck up the tattoo ink, i.e. tissue reforms around the tattoo pigment as revitalized skin and traps the ink in the dermis once and for all.  Any remaining ink that was in the epidermis is removed as your skin goes through its natural cycle. This is evident when there is any visible scabbing after getting tattooed.

Why Topical Tattoo Removal Creams Don’t Work-we need to go deep…

If we want to help our body to get rid of what became an unwanted guest in our dermis, we need a powerful ally that reaches the deep dermis and breaks the ink into digestible pieces that can be flushed away more easily by those “big eaters”, the macrophages.

Once the ink is turned into residue with the aid of laser beams, our circulatory system will be working on washing out these unwanted pieces. There are some important factors to consider when preparing for a laser removal procedure, and here we’ll mention some of them.

It is noteworthy that fresh new tattoos are not the most ideal candidates for removal. In the event of instant tattoo regret, any good tattoo removal specialist will advise you to wait for a while before opting for laser tattoo removal. Once the tattoo pigment is placed, the first reaction will be for the body to stop the bleeding, which is what causes swelling after getting tattooed. The cycle of healing and entrapment of a placed ink is a process that takes 2-3 months.  After this time, the tattoo will have settled into the dermis and what the laser is meant to do is to emit light energy that is absorbed by the tattoo pigment, heating it up and eventually destroying it. If the tattoo is still going through the process of settling into the dermis and laser light hits it, it is most likely to start blistering or scarring.

On a similar note, old and faded tattoos are easier to remove, as the lymphatic system has long started the process that the laser would take over. 

Why Being Healthy Aides in Tattoo Removal

A successful removal largely depends on the ability of our lymphatic system to flush out the ink residue, which is why one should rely on their blood circulation to do the process. This is an important part of the fading process, and (all else being equal) tattoos located further from the heart, i.e. down the arms or legs, tend to fade more slowly because there is less blood being circulated to the area.

The quality of the tattoo determines the success of the removal as well. Unexperienced or untrained tattoo artists puncture the skin excessively creating a bigger wound then desired, therefore causing your skin to scar.  Scars usually form with a thicker layer of skin making it harder for the laser to penetrate the ink under, making the dermis more difficult to reach. Subsequent treatments will eventually hit the target, but you may need more removal sessions.

In addition to scarring, undertrained tattooists may cause the so-called “blow outs” on your skin. This usually appears on the fingers and toes, where the artist has gone too deep with the needle and hit the subcutaneous layer of skin, causing the ink to spread looking like blurred lines. Just like with scars, the laser will be able to penetrate the ink, but it could take some time to see results with blow outs.

If your tattoo has been done at home, it’s most likely that an amateur tattooist doing his art in his garage wasn’t well equipped with the understanding of the dermal science behind tattooing. Just like with scarring or blow-outs, if the ink is placed too deep, the tattoo removal process is made much more difficult. Not impossible, but you can expect more sessions. On the other hand, if the ink of the tattoo is placed too high on the epidermis then the ink will have faded quite a bit and removing it will be much easier.  Another issue that commonly arises comes with the use of low quality ink some at home tattooists would use. Lower quality inks are known to cause additional irritation and could also slow down the removal process. Here we should discuss allergic reactions to getting your tattoo and how would this affect the removal process.

What you want to know about Tattoo Inks

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates substances people ingest and some of the ingredients individuals place on their skin, the agency does not regulate inks that are placed under the skin. Tattoo inks include the pigment, which can include a variety of metallic salts (e.g., oxides, selenides, and sulfides), organic dyes, or plastics, and the carriers with which they are mixed to help provide an even application of the ink. And while one may be ready to pay a price for brilliant color, however, people can experience allergic reactions to the pigments that provide vivid colors, especially reds.  Anyone who had a moderate to severe allergic reaction to tattoo ink when they first got the tattoo should take nonprescription allergy medication prior to treatments for at least 3-5 days during the healing period.  There is an increased chance of anaphylaxis since the ink that gave you the allergic reaction will be shattered into smaller particles and distributed through your immune system.  Mild allergic reactions to ink can be treated with laser tattoo removal successfully, sometimes giving your body more reason to target the area for healing.

And last but not the least – the duration and success of the removal depends on the colors used in your tattoo. If your tattoo is full of darker colored shading then you’re in luck. Generally speaking these are black, brown, dark blue, green. The ink that is placed deeper in the dermis is one containing red, orange, yellow, pale blue and will take more laser treatments to break into smaller pieces.