Tattoos are an extremely unique and meaningful medium for art, both because of their intimate nature on our bodies as well as their permanence. Getting a tattoo is a big deal, and an exciting one at that, but it can also be a massive decision full of indecisiveness and questions and trying to figure out how to really perfect your idea.
After all, whatever you choose to put on your body will be there forever, and that probably has you wondering how the whole tattooing process actually works. These beautiful works of art, when done well and when properly cared for, can be with you for life.
You might be thinking: Don’t skin cells regenerate all the time? Wouldn’t this natural process just allow the ink to leak out of your skin’s upper layer? Not quite.
Let’s go over the ins and outs of this unique art form so that you can understand why tattoos are permanent while that permanent marker doodle you did on your forearm in middle school didn’t stick around. Read on to discover the information behind our body’s mechanism that makes tattoos permanent.
How Does the Tattoo Process Really Work?
Whether it’s an elaborate masterpiece or a smartass flash piece, whatever you choose to be tattooed on your skin stays there forever. Putting laser tattoo removal aside, what makes this artwork so difficult to remove? And since our cells are constantly dying and regenerating, why don’t tattoos fade to nothing over time?
There are a few answers to those questions. It is important to first understand the way the tattoo process really works, i.e. how ink is transferred from the needle and into your skin so that it can stay there forever.
The Tattoo Machine
A tattoo machine, aka a tattoo gun, ultimately uses a needle to deposit ink into your skin. The needle moves at high speeds, sometimes over 6000 movements per minute, to puncture your skin and deposit ink below the surface.
The tattoo needle can be made of nickel, steel, or chrome, and there are tons of types of tattoo needles, each used for a specific look. Round needles are usually used for shading and lining, whereas flat needles are typically needed for cleaner lines. Traditionally, these needles are around .3 millimeters in thickness, but can vary depending on the designs that require more detail.
Each needle is sterilized before use and disposed of after use, mitigating risk of infection. Now, the needle and tattoo machine are definitely important parts of the permanence of a tattoo, but it the placement of that tattoo on your body can make a huge difference, too.
A hand tattoo isn’t going to last nearly as long as a shoulder or calf tattoo because of how quickly those skin cells on your hand have to renew and replace themselves from all the wear and tear of being a badass every day.
The Layers of Your Skin
If you could believe it, the secret to a tattoo’s permanence lies below the surface…of your skin. See, your skin is made up of seven protective and vital layers. The top two, however, are what we’re concerned with when we’re talking about the realm of tattoos.
The epidermal layer of skin, i.e. the outermost layer, is what protects the second layer, called the dermis. The dermis is where tattoos live. The needle from the tattoo machine punctures your skin while depositing ink and creating a vacuum that pulls the ink down into the dermis.
Here, the tattoo will stay. If the ink didn’t make it into the dermis layer, it would just bleed out when the epidermal layer’s cells regenerate, around three weeks later.
But what about the dermis layer of your skin actually makes tattoos permanent?
So, What Actually Makes Tattoos Last… Forever?
As it turns out, it is actually the elements and cells inside of the dermal layer of your skin that are responsible for keeping your ink around for life.
Over time, there have been many theories about why tattoos are permanent. Humans have marked their bodies for thousands of years, with these permanent designs having served many different purposes with cultural implications.
The one thing that has stayed true throughout history is the permanence of these tattoos.
For many years, scientists and the general public believed that tattoos were permanent because the ink was staining specific skin cells. These skin cells exist in the dermis layer of the skin and are called fibroblasts. They make up a lot of the connective tissue in the dermis layer.
As it turns out, the fibroblasts are not the skin cells responsible for the mechanism that keeps tattoos on your skin forever. It is a different cell altogether called the macrophage, though there were some doubts about the macrophage theory, too.
Although skin cells in the dermis layer don’t regenerate as quickly as cells in the epidermis, they do still have a life cycle, and die and renew like all other cells. So then how does tattoo ink remain, even after the cells it was rumored to have “stained” have died?
The Truth Behind Why Tattoos are Permanent
When a tattoo needle punctures the skin, especially when done over and over again, your body treats the tattoo as a wound. Because of this, immune system cells rush to the area.
One type of these cells, mentioned above, are called macrophages, which is Greek for “big eater.” Essentially, these macrophages eat the microscopic blobs of ink placed there by the tattoo needle. Then, when they die, they pass it to the next generation of macrophages.
Macrophages take up the ink, release it when they die, and it gets eaten by new macrophages. So even as these cells regenerate, the tattoo remains. Macrophages are actually designed to capture foreign particles and expel them, but because of the unique chemistry of tattoo ink, they are unable to recognize these particles as expellable and instead hold onto them until their death. Essentially, the ink particles become trapped inside the vacuole of these cells when they initially try to launch an immune attack against the foreign particles (i.e. the ink).
This capture-release-recapture cycle goes on forever. So, as it turns out, you have macrophages to thank for the longevity of your ink.
How To Ensure Your Ink Lasts as Long as Possible
There are a few things you can do to give tattoos an even better chance of lasting forever. Although some tattoos may fade slightly, here are some tips to keep fading at a minimum and keep your tattoo looking fresher for longer.
Select a Good Tattoo Artist and Shop
As we’ve just learned, the reason tattoos last permanently is because of their location in the dermis layer of our skin, where the macrophages cells that live there hold onto your tattoo ink and pass it to future generations of cells like a microscopic family heirloom.
However, ensuring proper placement and safe tattoo practices requires finding a reputable tattoo shop and artist. An experienced professional tattoo artist won’t even have to think how to avoid puncturing the skin at too deep or too shallow a depth.
If the tattoo needle goes too deep, it will puncture the hypodermis layer, which will almost certainly lead to infection and cause the client pain. If the needle goes too shallow, your beautiful tattoo won’t last much past three weeks, let alone forever. The cells in this region will renew and take your ink with them.
The hallmark of a good tattoo artist is how they handle the needle. The depth and pressure of the needle will ensure a long-lasting tattoo and a painless experience.
Diligently Complete the Proper Aftercare
Aftercare is absolutely essential to the tattoo process. Ensuring that your tattoo is properly cleaned and cared for can mean the difference between dullness and infection and a vivid, long-lasting design.
Here is what we recommend:
Daily Moisturizing Lotion — Ours provides long-lasting hydration without leaving skin greasy thanks to ingredients like sesame seed oil, aloe vera, and shea butter.
Tattoo Brightening Balm — Ours is famous for revitalizing, replenishing, and preserving your body art. Calendula, shea butter, and cocoa butter are superstars for soothing and protecting, which is why they’re star ingredients.
Tattoo Sunscreen SPF 30 — SPF is absolutely key to the longevity and vibrancy of your new tattoo, so be sure not to skip this step. UV rays can fade tattoos fast, meaning even though they’ll still technically be permanent and will still be on your skin, they will not look anywhere near as good as they did when they were fresh. Think blurred lines and muted colors.
So, we’ve discovered why tattoos are truly permanent, and it’s not because the ink stains your skin cells! Macrophages are the cells responsible for taking up, releasing, and recapturing the micro ink particles that allow your tattoo to last.
Make sure to take full advantage of this new knowledge by treating your tattoo with proper love and care. It’s with you for life, and whether it ages well or turns into a muted blur is on you!