A tattoo is a permanent mark on the body that is created by inserting pigment (known as “ink”) into the skin. Modern tattoos are usually made with an electric “tattoo gun” that rapidly inserts the ink into the skin with needles. The needles prick the skin’s top layer—the epidermis—and inject ink into its underlying layer of connective tissue, the dermis.
Cells in the dermis are not regularly shed and replaced as they are in the epidermis. That’s why tattoos are permanent: Once the ink is in the dermis, it tends to stay there.
Decorative tattooing has been around for thousands of years, although the word tattoo dates back only to the late 1700s, when British sailors adopted it from the Tahitian word for body marking, tatau. For a long time, tattoos in the United States carried a kind of stigma. No longer. According to a survey published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2006, almost one-fourth of American adults between the ages of 18 and 50 have a tattoo.
Not all tattoos are intentional. Sometimes—such as after a motorcycle or fireworks accident—dirt or debris can become deeply imbedded in the skin, leaving a permanent pigmented mark. In the medical community, these are known as traumatic tattoos.
Risks From Tattoos
Decorative tattooing poses several health risks, including infection from dirty needles, allergic reactions to the ink pigments, and granulomas (tiny bumps of inflamed tissue beneath the surface of the skin). Scarring, including large, raised scars known as keloids, can also occur. Some of these complications can persist for months or even years.
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Another common problem with tattoos is regret. A once-stylish tattoo may later appear dated or embarrassing. Aging, weight gain or loss, or other factors that change the skin’s tone or texture may cause a tattoo to become distorted. Tattoos can also unattractively fade or blur.
Almost one in five adults with a tattoo have considered getting it removed, according to the American Academy of Dermatology survey. Fortunately, recent advances in laser technology are making it easier to help people with “tattoo remorse.”