While some consider tattoos an act of rebellion and nonconformity, they have been around for thousands of years to express identity, art, and ritual.

Mummies dating back to about 5,200 years ago have been discovered with permanent designs etched into their skin. So, if you’re ever questioning exactly how permanent a tattoo is, keep in mind that not even five millennia of torrential rain, blazing sun, and towering snowdrifts can wipe your skin’s canvas clean. 

Of the 30% of Americans currently sporting their custom ink, many don’t know the complicated processes going on just beneath the surface or the beating your body takes every time the needle meets skin. A better understanding can help you make a more informed decision and create aftercare habits that give your skin the tools it needs to heal.

Let’s take a closer look:

The Dermatology Behind Tattoos

Your skin is made up of many layers. On the surface is the epidermis, a thick and protective barrier consisting of 5 sublayers. The epidermis is constantly shedding and regrowing skin cells to maintain its ability to keep the bad stuff– like bacteria and pollutants– out and the good stuff in. That’s also why tattoo needles must pierce deeper than the epidermis. Ink injected into the surface layer would soon slough off with the constant cycle of skin cell shedding. 

Directly under your epidermis is the dermis. This layer is much thicker than the epidermis and contains a network of glands, follicles, connective tissues like collagen & elastin, nerves, and blood vessels. This is the part of your skin where tattoo artists deposit ink.

Using a machine capable of pricking your skin thousands of times a minute, the artist creates minor puncture wounds through to the dermis and deposits ink into them. 

Your immune system, detecting that there’s been a “breach” in the protective epidermis barrier, sends macrophage blood cells to the site of the tattoo to remove the foreign invader. They get to work “swallowing” the ink particles and carting them away through the lymphatic nodes present in the dermis. But, many macrophages remain at the site after swallowing the ink, allowing your tattoo to stay visible even after your body has healed all of the wounds. 

Because the dermis recycles cells at a much slower rate, it takes years for tattoos to fade. But, as demonstrated by our inked-up ancestors, they never truly go away without the help of a dermatologist. 

While the Advanced Dermatology & Cosmetic Institute experts do not offer tattoo removal services, we can help you ensure that your skin is healing well, that it’s healthy enough for tattooing, and address any reactions that may occur. It’s essential to seek medical attention right away if you notice signs of infection or abnormal changes in your skin.