When a tattoo is placed, the ink is injected into the dermis, the deeper layer of skin under the epidermis. While the epidermis is constantly being replaced by the process of skin cells sloughing off and being regenerated, the dermis underneath is relatively stable. Tattoo ink is deposited alongside the collagen fibers of the dermis. This attracts immune cells called macrophages (i.e. “big eaters”) which attempt to eat up the ink. Ink is seen by the body as a foreign substance which must be attacked and removed. Unfortunately for the immune system (but fortunately for the tattoo) most of the ink particles are too big for the macrophages to remove, so they remain permanently suspended inside the macrophages in the dermis and visible through the translucent epidermis.

 

Contained within the connective tissue that lies beneath the skin are cells and the extracellular matrix, the “filling” between the cells. The extracellular matrix is made up of two main components: proteins (including collagen – pictured as pink fibers below) and a fluid or gel-like substance which serves to retain moisture as well as give tissues padding (illustrated in grey below).

 

When it comes to removal of tattoo ink with a laser, the task is to break up the ink into smaller particles in order to allow the macrophages to efficiently do their job in eliminating the ink from the skin. Laser very quickly and efficiently breaks a portion of a tattoo’s ink into small enough particles that new macrophages are able to eat it up. After the macrophages digest the ink particles, the waste material is expelled into the extracellular matrix and then taken up by the lymph vessels which transport and eventually dump it into the circulatory blood stream. Eventually all blood is filtered by the liver where foreign and toxic elements are metabolized (i.e. transformed into molecules that are less toxic and able to be excreted). These molecules are then put back into circulation and then cleared by either the kidneys (urine) or the intestines (bile/stool). So that tattoo on your arm ends up in the toilet after all is said and done!

In a system that is working optimally, liberated ink is usually completely eliminated 5-8 weeks after a laser treatment. However, in a system that is hindered by poor circulation, excess toxicity, liver dysfunction, lack of nutrients, or poor hydration, the complete removal of tattoo ink may be much less efficient.

The immune system is activated because ink is considered foreign to the body, but unfortunately often it is toxic as well. In following blog posts I will look at the ingredients used to make tattoo ink. Many (although not all) contain heavy metals, organic chemicals, alcohols, and other chemical carriers. I will also discuss the potential risk that liberating these toxic inks into the system carries, and finally what someone can do to support their body’s circulation, immune, and detoxification systems in order to optimize the tattoo removal while protecting their health.