Tattoos impacting the immune system

Over 30% of Americans have one or more tattoos today, but there may be more benefits to the body art than just a form of self expression or heritage. According to Daniel Sebastian, a tattoo artist at No Sleep Art & Tattoo Studio, the biggest concern for people getting their first tattoo is pain, and occasionally the health risks associated with getting tattoos, including possible impacts on the integumentary system. Biocultural medical anthropologist Christopher D. Lynn is an associate professor at the University of Alabama. He has been focusing his studies towards cultural impacts on human evolutionary biology and health. Lynn has been researching the effects tattooing has on the immune system for the last three years because of the lack of research on the subject.

He did various studies, looking at each volunteer’s number of previous tattoos and the amount of time their newest tattoo took. To determine a volunteer’s health, they measured the volunteer’s height, weight, and fat density.  The researchers studied the amount of the stress hormone, cortisol, and the antibody, immunoglobulin A in each volunteer’s saliva and blood. For the volunteers that were getting their first tattoo, their immunoglobulin levels dropped, and their cortisol levels rose dramatically. However, people who were getting another tattoo only experienced a slight drop in immunoglobulin, which would suggest a strengthened immune system. The strengthened immune system is because the human body responds to the tattoo in two ways: it triggers the immune system to fight off the foreign substance, and launches “adaptive responses”, which marks the foreign material so the body can look out for it in the future. Other studies have shown that the small amount of short-term stress from getting a tattoo also helps the immune system. Lynn also believes that this immune system boost could be helpful for other skin injuries as well.

In 2018 Lynn along with anthropologist Michaela Howells traveled to the Samoan Islands to do more research on tattooing benefits because Samoans have one of the longest, continuous histories of tattooing in the Pacific Islands. Even though it’s not guaranteed that tattoo effects are great enough to make an obvious difference in one’s health, they are still an important part of human history for many cultures.