What Do Tattoos Do to Your Immune System?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 11, 2020
    Last Updated: November 11, 2020

There tends to be a lot of misconception about tattoos and how much they affect our immune systems – if they do at all. To help clear the muddy waters, we’ve taken a look at a few different studies to see if getting a tattoo does affect the function of our immune system, either positively or negatively.


Why People Thought it Did Have An Effect

A few years ago, a study was performed on a small sample size of people to see if tattoos have an effect on the immune system. Researchers measured immunoglobulin and cortisol in participants’ saliva before and after getting a tattoo, as well as their tattoo experience – number of tattoos, percentage of the body covered, years since the first tattoo, number of tattoo sessions, and lifetime hours tattooed. 

They hypothesized that tattooing would inoculate the immune system, given the body’s reaction to stressors that come from soft tissue damage. The results of this study do suggest that people are, in fact, not as sensitive to tattoo stressors over time – aka people who have been tattooed previously may have a better immune response than those getting their first tattoo. 

And thus, the researchers’ hypothesis was supported. However, the researchers also considered that people with healthy immune systems might be more likely to heal faster than others who are not as healthy, which means they may be more likely to get more tattoos than others.

How the Media Ran With The Study

From this single study, a litany of headlines appeared online, prompting millennials to share countless articles that claim their tattoos are able to prevent the common cold. Scientists have since been fighting against said articles, trying to educate others on the full story. 

First off, cortisol is the hormone that the body releases in times of stress and causes immunosuppression, helping to manage our fight or flight response. In the study above, immunosuppression was measured by the change in levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA is an antibody that helps protect against GI and respiratory infections.

The study found that after the tattoo session, repeat tattooers showed an increase in IgA levels, which meant a boost in their immune system. The study showed that repeat tattooers had a smaller degree of immunosuppression since they did not have a cortisol surge, as they are familiar with the pain and the process of tattooing. 

However, those getting their first tattoo showed a decrease in IgA, meaning more strain on their immune systems. The study suggests the body becomes tougher and more tolerant after the first tattoo.

This study does support previous research on the body’s response to stress in that it shows that previous tattoo experience affects later tattoo experiences. However, the study was not conclusive on how long after a tattoo session, the protective effects lasted, nor did it include data on how the immune system may be boosted by IgA spikes. 

So tattoos won’t make you impervious to illness, but they may cause a slight boost in your immune system, though it’s still unknown to what degree.

The Ongoing Research

Christopher D. Lynn, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, is the man who started this whole thing. He is still looking for proof that tattoos boost our immune system (his first study, as mentioned above, started in 2016 in Alabama).

In 2018, he traveled to the Samoan Islands. Given Samoans’ extensive history of tattooing, Lynn wanted to see if he could find the same link between tattoos and enhanced immune response as he did in his previous study. 

Your immune system reacts to foreign material by producing white blood cells (microphages) to fight against infection – so like when you get a tattoo. Your body also has adaptive responses – proteins in the blood, like immunoglobulins, will try to fight off anything that is identified as a threat, like ink in your skin. Immunoglobulins continue to circulate in the bloodstream – should a threat return, they’re quickly ready to protect with an immune response.

Lynn repeated his study with 25 tattoo recipients in the Islands. IgA, as previously mentioned, is regarded as one of the first defenses against disease, especially in regards to things like the common cold.

The study found that even after tattoos heal, IgA remains higher in the bloodstream and that those with more tattoos produce more IgA, meaning it’s possible there is an elevated immune response when getting a new tattoo compared to others who had less or no tattoo experience. Given what the data suggest, it seems this response depends on having gotten multiple tattoos, not just how much time elapsed between each new tattoo

The immune boost given from these situations may help combat other skin injuries or even just improve health in general.

Getting a tattoo seems to build up a tolerance and prepare the body for the next one. This is similar to how short-term stress can actually be beneficial for the body. In small doses, stress can help keep your immune system active and help fight off germs. It’s getting stress in long, overwhelming, chronic doses that decrease the immune system.

While the results of Lynn’s study of the Samoan people supported the results of his original study in Alabama, it’s always important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. We can definitely say that getting tattoos builds up the body to prepare for the next one, but there’s not enough data to conclusively prove that tattoos boost the immune system enough to help fight off pathogens or diseases.

Conclusion

All things considered, we’ve got conflicting accounts on the actual effect tattoos have on the immune system. While getting a tattoo may help improve the overall function of the immune system, there’s simply not enough information to prove or disprove it. 

However, we do know that the body has a better response to getting a tattoo when you’ve already been tattooed in the past. So, for now, there is no direct link between a healthy immune system and tattoos—whether it’s how many tattoos someone has or how often they’ve been tattooed.