Getting tattoos may stimulate immunity, but not without risks

Close to one in five people have a tattoo, but not many understand the health risks or benefits of getting inked. A recent study published in the American Journal of Human Biology found that getting multiple tattoos can actually toughen up one’s immune system. The study in question was led by Christopher Lynn, Johnna Dominguez and Jason Decaro. The group hypothesized that the immune system works to adjust to the stress put on the skin getting multiple tattoos, thus toughening up the immune system.

“Tattooing may stimulate the immune system in a manner similar to a vaccination to be less susceptible to future pathogenic infiltration,” the researchers explained.

In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers focused on 29 subjects, consisting of 24 women and five men, all between the ages of 18 and 47. Samples from these subjects were collected in three tattoo studios in Alabama.

Two factors were taken into account: tattoo experience and immune function.

First, the researchers recorded the number of tattoos on each subject, total number of hours spent being tattooed, number of tattoo sessions, years since getting the first tattoo and percent of each subject’s body that is covered with tattoos.

Scientists took samples of their subjects’ saliva before and after they were tattooed. This allowed the scientists to see whether there were any changes in secretory immunoglobulin A and cortisol levels, which would suggest an immune reaction to getting a tattoo.

According to the study, cortisol is released as a stress response roughly 30 to 60 minutes after a stressful event in an effort to suppress an immune response, which could be offset by the stress on the skin when getting a tattoo. Secretory immunoglobulin A is an antibody which defends the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.

The study found that there was a positive correlation between levels of secretory immunoglobulin A in a subject’s saliva after he or she was tattooed and the percent of his or her body covered. There was also a major inverse correlation between levels of secretory immunoglobulin A and number of sessions, hours spent being tattooed and the rating of the experience.

In simpler terms, the results showed that those with more tattoos experienced a greater effect on their body’s immune response, meaning that there was less immunosuppression in samples with a larger number of tattoos.

But, according to researchers, there are two ways of looking at the aforementioned data.

According to the study, “First, participants with greater tattoo experience may be more excited that anxious about a tattoo session, resulting in reduced immunosuppression.” Furthermore, “Another explanation … is that people with higher tattoo experience might also display reduced [immunoglobulin A] suppression after tattooing, similar to elite athletes who habituate to moderate and high intensity exercise stress over time.”

The study also found a parallel between getting tattooed and getting vaccinated.

“Administration of vaccines via the same technique used in tattooing to inject ink under the skin is a more effective method of vaccination than intramuscular injection,” the study claimed.

All in all, the study’s main limitation is its sample size. Not only are the subjects all white, they are all educated and well-off. Thus, it would be more interesting if more studies were done with a larger and more diverse sample size.

On the flip side, getting a tattoo has its health risks. The Food and Health Administration regulates the ink used for tattoos, while the practice of tattooing is regulated on a state-by-state basis. For example, New York does not allow for tattooing of minors regardless of parental consent. The clients are also asked to check that the tools used, their hands and the skin that is to be tattooed are hygienic.

The FDA regulations were put in place after a string of reports regarding bad reactions to ink, itchiness, scarring and inflamed skin in the summer. The symptoms would appear days, if not years, after the tattoo was applied.

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, some of these health risks stem from using unsterilized water to make or dilute ink used in tattoos.

In rare cases, bad ink can lead to nontuberculous mycobacteria, which is an infection that sticks to the area where the ink was applied. NTM is treated with drugs that can cause serious side effects and it takes between four to six months for the skin to be healed.

While getting multiple tattoos can lead to boosted immunity, one has to consider the possible health risks before getting one.