Scientists warn that tattoos may increase cancer risk

Scientists have warned of an urgent need for further research into the long-term health effects of tattoos, after new research found tattoos may increase the risk of lymphoma cancer.

2023 Pew Research Center surveys show that nearly a third of Americans have at least one tattoo. However, little is known about the long-term effects of getting a tattoo on our health.

In a new study at Lund University in Sweden, researchers analyzed a group of 11,905 participants to determine whether tattoos might affect the risk of developing lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that begins in the white blood cells.

Stock image of a tattoo artist at work. Roughly one in three Americans has at least one tattoo, but new research suggests that getting a tattoo may increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

Mikhail Spaskov/Getty

“We identified people with lymphoma through population registers,” Christel Nielsen, who led the study, said in a statement. “These individuals were then matched with a control group of the same sex and age but who did not have lymphoma. Study participants also answered a questionnaire about lifestyle factors to determine whether or not they had gotten a tattoo.

“After taking into account other relevant factors such as smoking and age, we found that people with tattoos had a 21 percent higher risk of developing lymphoma.”

The exact mechanism behind this connection is still a mystery, but Nielsen said it’s probably related to how our bodies react to tattoo ink. “We already know that when tattoo ink is injected into the skin, the body perceives it as something foreign that shouldn’t be there and the immune system is activated,” Nielsen said. “A large portion of the ink is carried away from the skin to the lymph nodes where it accumulates.”

Because of this, the team expected that people with larger tattoos would have a higher risk of lymphoma than those with smaller tattoos, simply because they had more ink on their bodies. However, size made no difference.

“We don’t yet know why this happened,” Nielsen said. “One can only speculate that tattoos, whatever their size, cause mild inflammation in the body, which in turn could lead to cancer. So the picture is more complex than we initially thought.”

These findings are entirely correlative, and more work needs to be done to verify them and prove that tattoo ink is actually causing the increased risk of lymphoma. The team also hopes to find out if tattoos can increase our risk of other cancers and inflammatory diseases.

“People will likely want to continue to express their identity through tattoos, and so it’s very important that we as a society can make sure that this is safe,” Nielsen said. “For the individual, it’s good to know that tattoos can affect your health, and if you notice symptoms that you think may be related to your tattoo, you should contact your healthcare provider.”

The full study can be found in the journal EClinicalMedicine,

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