Many people view tattoos as works of art. Our ink expresses our creativity and shows colorful personality. However, few people take time to understand the science behind the art. It’s important to know what really happens to your body when you get a tattoo to fully understand the process of what goes on under the skin.
Most importantly, those considering going under the tattoo gun need to be aware that a tattoo starts out as an ink-filled collection of tiny wounds. Even if you love your ink, tattooing can be a traumatic process for your skin.
What Happens When You Get a Tattoo?
Tattoos are permanent images in the skin, delivered by needles injecting ink into the dermis. This tissue is just underneath the outer layer of your skin, called the epidermis. The ink is injected into the dermis by a machine that delivers thousands of tiny pricks per minute via needle. The ink-filled needles push color into the skin, allowing the tattoo artist to create permanent designs, images and masterpieces. Modern tattoo machines work quickly; they can pierce the skin to inject ink at a frequency of up to 3,000 pricks per minute.
It’s important that these pricks allow the ink to be injected into the deeper dermis, rather than the epidermis, because this outer layer of skin is always shedding. A tattoo in the epidermis wouldn’t last – it would likely disappear in just a few weeks.
The dermis is very sensitive. This delicate layer is comprised of collagen fibers, nerves, glands and blood vessels and can experience trauma when ink is injected. Some of the larger ink particles are spread into the dermis to create the tattoo, while others will be swallowed by cells called fibroblasts. Fibroblasts produce collagen, which is essential to the healing process.
Because the tattooing process essentially creates tens of thousands of tiny wounds into a deep layer of skin, the procedure pushes the immune system into overdrive. When in healing mode, the body rushes a team of blood cells called macrophages to the site of the tattoo to remove the foreign substance (ink particles) that are now in the dermis. This process is complex: Macrophages are why tattoos fade over time AND part of what makes them permanent. Some macrophages swallow ink particles and send them out through the lymphatic system. However other macrophages remain in the dermis and allow the injected ink to remain visible. This process can help explain how tattoos fade over time.
Regardless of whether you love your tattoos or you wish them away, understanding the scientific process behind your tattoos will help you make sense of what’s going on beneath your skin. Interested in getting a tattoo removed? Read more about the process on our page.