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Inked Forever: The Science Behind What Makes Tattoos Permanent

Inked Forever: The Science Behind What Makes Tattoos Permanent


Tattooing is a practice that has been in practice since ancient times and it was prevalent among people of different cultures and in different eras. It can indicate significant achievements, show one’s affiliation with certain organizations or clubs, or act as a mere decoration. But the question that we need to answer is what makes these designs to be firmly etched in our memories for the rest of our lives? Tattoo permanency thus calls for the following focal points on skin tissues, tattoo pigments, and immunity. Now, let’s try to describe the general characteristics that make tattoos permanent and the process happening in our bodies.

 The Structure of the Skin

To comprehend why tattoos are permanent, it is essential to first understand the basic structure of the skin, which comprises three primary layers: This layer in turn is divided into three sub layers which include the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis.

  1. Epidermis: This is the outermost stratum of the epidermis and mainly consists of the keratinocytes. It is constantly changing and cannot be used for incorporation of tattoo ink.
  2. Dermis: The next layer is the dermis which is a much thicker and denser layer that includes blood vessels and nerve endings as well as collagen. The dermis is the primary factor in tattoo permanency because, unlike the epidermis, it is the layer that does not shed cells periodically. 
  3. Hypodermis: This is the innermost layer which is mainly made up of adipose and connective tissues, thus acting as an insulator and as a shock absorber.

When getting a tattoo, the ink is injected into the dermis layer of the skin and gets locked in a semi-permanent manner.

 The Tattooing Process

Tattooing involves the use of a needle that penetrates the skin at a given pace, which ranges from 50 to 3000 times in a minute. The needle goes into the skin to the dermal layer while injecting the ink particles into the skin. Tattoo machines that are used today use electromagnet coils to make the needle move in and out of the skin with great accuracy.

The permanency of the tattoo depends on the dermis layer stability. Unlike the epidermis, the dermis contains cells that are not divided as frequently and are not renewed as frequently. They do not change much throughout a person’s lifetime, which helps the ink to stick.

 Ink Composition and Properties

Tattoo ink is made of pigments mixed with a liquid medium. These pigments may be either organic or inorganic and differ significantly in terms of their chemical makeup. Common pigments include:

Black Ink: Composed of carbon materials such as soot or graphite.

– Red Ink: Sometimes it is obtained from cinnabar or cadmium red.

– Blue Ink: They are made from copper salts or cobalt aluminum oxides.

The carrier solution, which can be water, ethanol, or glycerin, assists in the smooth deposition of the pigment into the skin and maintains a consistent distribution of the pigment.

The permanence of a tattoo is also determined by the size and shape of the particles of ink used. Small particles are easily ingested by the body’s immune system and washed out of the body, while large particles become lodged in the dermal cells.

 The Immune System’s Role

As soon as a tattoo is created, the body perceives the ink as a foreign invader and the immune system springs into action. This is achieved through the macrophages, which are a form of white blood cell that tries to engulf and eliminate the ink particles.

However, many ink particles are too large to be ingested by macrophages and are therefore not broken down internally. Instead, these cells get embedded in the dermis layer of the skin and that is why the ink particles are safely contained and do not travel to other parts of the body where they could cause damage; the tattooed skin, therefore, has a permanent though semi-permanent storage of the pigment.

After several years, some macrophages may move smaller ink particles to the lymph nodes causing a slight blanching. However, the majority of the ink particles are deposited in the dermis layer, which gives the tattoo its permanent look.

 Factors Affecting Tattoo Longevity

While tattoos are designed to be permanent, several factors can affect their longevity and appearance over time:

  1. Sun Exposure: The sun, especially the ultraviolet (UV) radiation, is known to bleach tattoo inks and lead to fading of the tattoo. Applying sunscreen on tattoos ensures that they stay bright and beautiful for a long time.
  2. Ink Quality: There is a difference in the quality of inks used and the quality of inks that are used will determine how quickly they fade or lose color.
  3. Placement: Tattoos that are created in the places where the skin is less thick or those that are subjected to friction (for example, on hands or feet) may fade.
  4. Skin Tone and Type: This is because skin properties like oiliness, elasticity, and melanin content influence the tattoo’s healing process and the duration of its coloration.
  5. Aftercare: Tattoo aftercare is important during the healing process if one wants the tattoo to last long. This involves washing the area with water and soap, applying lotion to the area, and avoiding direct exposure to the sun.

 Advances in Tattoo Removal

Although they are meant to be a lifetime, tattoos can be done away with, and this process is most common through laser removal. Laser tattoo removal involves using light energy to break down the pigment and the ink particles into smaller particles which are then cleared by the body’s immune system.

However, laser removal is a long, painful process that can be costly and does not always guarantee the complete removal of the tattoo.


The nature of tattooing and the permanence of a tattoo depend on three factors, namely the properties of the tattoo ink, the structure of the skin, and the immune response of the body. Tattoos are permanent body art that is placed in the dermis layer of the skin, making them long-lasting and an extension of the skin. Learning about this process also helps one appreciate the wonders of human biology and the importance of careful planning when one wants to get a tattoo. From an art viewpoint, from a personal view, or a cultural symbol, tattoos are living proof of the symbiosis between art and science.

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