scorecardTattoos, no matter what size, can put you at increased cancer risk: Study
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Tattoos, no matter what size, can put you at increased cancer risk: Study

Tattoos, no matter what size, can put you at increased cancer risk: Study
LifeScience2 min read
Tattoos, once the mark of rebellion or a symbol of niche subcultures, have burst into the mainstream as a vibrant canvas for personal storytelling and identity. From intricate sleeves to minimalist designs, tattoos are celebrated as powerful forms of self-expression.

But as their popularity has grown, so have the concerns about their long-term health impacts—particularly regarding the harmful chemicals in tattoo ink that weaves these permanent stories beneath our skin.

Studies so far have shown that tattoo ink doesn’t just stay on the skin. The body treats it as a foreign substance and triggers an immune response, causing a significant amount of ink particles to migrate to the lymph nodes. But what happens when tattoo ink accumulates in the lymphatic system?

To answer this question, researchers at Sweden’s Lund University embarked on an extensive study. Their aim was to determine if there is an increased risk of malignant lymphoma—a rare cancer affecting white blood cells (lymphocytes)—for individuals with tattoos.
Peeling back the layers: A countrywide research into tattoos and health risks
With over 20% of the population sporting ink, Sweden ranks among the world’s most tattooed nations. It also maintains meticulous population registers, including the comprehensive National Cancer Register, documenting all cancer diagnoses across the country.

In a bid to understand potential health risks associated with tattoos, a study was conducted, encompassing all Swedes diagnosed with lymphoma between ages 20 to 60 from 2007 to 2017. For every lymphoma patient, three age- and sex-matched individuals without lymphoma were selected as controls, providing a comparative backdrop for the research.

Participants completed detailed questionnaires covering various lifestyle factors. Tattooed individuals provided additional information regarding tattoo size, age at first tattoo, and ink colours. The study included a total of 5,591 participants—1,398 lymphoma cases and 4,193 controls.

The findings revealed a 21% increased risk of lymphoma in tattooed individuals compared to their non-tattooed counterparts. The researchers arrived at this number even after adjusting for smoking habits and education levels, which could influence both tattoo prevalence and lymphoma risk.

Interestingly, the size of tattoos did not correlate with lymphoma risk. Instead, the duration since getting a tattoo was significant—the risk appeared elevated for both recent tattoos (within two years) and those over a decade old.

Here, it’s also crucial to note that lymphoma is a very rare disease. In 2022, Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare reported a diagnosis rate of 22 per 100,000 people within the 20 to 60 age bracket. This very fact hints at a strong link between tattoos and lymphoma risk.

But on the other hand, it would be premature to issue specific tattoo-related health recommendations just yet, given that this is a solitary study. More extensive research would be required to draw definitive conclusions.

Recognising the need for further investigation, researchers are now pursuing additional studies on two forms of skin cancer and planning new research to explore potential links between tattoos and immune-system-related conditions.

In the meantime, it is vital for individuals with tattoos to stay informed about potential health implications and seek medical advice if they experience symptoms possibly related to their tattoos.

The study was recently published in the journal eClinicalMedicine and can be accessed here.