The Science of Getting (and Getting Rid of) a Tattoo
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The Science of Getting (and Getting Rid of) a Tattoo


Nearly one in five people in America has a
tattoo. So these permanent, portable pieces of art
are clearly an important part of our culture — but how do they work? What makes a tattoo permanent, and can you
really get rid of it? Well, tattoos work by taking advantage of
the structure of your skin, and the composition of the ink that’s used. Your skin, for starters, is made up of three
main layers of cells. On top, there’s the epidermis, which is
exposed to the environment. Below that, there’s the dermis, and it’s
full of hair follicles and sweat glands. And below that, you find the subcutaneous
layer of fat and connective tissue. A tattoo needle drives the ink all the way
through the epidermis. But it doesn’t actually inject the ink — instead,
it’s coated with pigment, kind of like a paintbrush. And the ink is absorbed through capillary
action — it just gets sucked down through your tissues into the dermis. This is deep enough that the ink won’t just
flake away as you lose skin cells from your epidermis over time. And it’s also why getting a tattoo hurts. The dermis is full of nerve endings that sense
pressure, temperature, and pain. So jamming a bunch of tiny needles into that
layer activates at lot of those receptors. Some people say that getting tattoos on boney
areas hurts the most, because there’s no fat to act as a cushion, but there’s not
really any scientific evidence to back that up. You can probably safely assume that your most
sensitive body parts — like the hands and face — would be pretty painful to have tattooed,
because they have the highest density of nerve endings. Now, even though getting a tattoo can be pretty
painful, many tattoo artists recommend that you avoid taking painkillers — even aspirin
— before your session. That’s because those drugs can thin your
blood, which makes the tattooing process more difficult. Thinner blood means that the needle causes
more bleeding, making it harder to see the area being tattooed, and that just makes things
harder for the tattoo artist. So save the aspirin for after your art is
done. And it’ll take a few weeks for your skin
to heal. Getting a tattoo triggers an immune response
in your body, which tries to attack the ink as if it were an infectious invader. Normally, your white blood cells clean up
after an injury, breaking down and gobbling up any foreign matter. And your white blood cells do manage to clear
away some of the smallest particles of ink, which is why a new tattoo fades in the first
couple of weeks. But most of the pigment particles are too
big to get eaten up and cleared away. So whatever your white blood cells can’t
eat up gets absorbed by nearby connective cells called fibroblasts — and the ink just
sorta hangs out in there. Forever. Which is why tattoos are pretty much permanent. Mostly. Fact is, even the most awesome tattoo will
fade with time. As your skin ages, your fibroblasts die off
and are replaced with new ones, so over time, the ink migrates a little as the cells turn
over. Fading can also be caused by sun exposure
— the UV rays in sunlight break down the tattoo pigment, so more of it can be cleared
away by white blood cells. And of course, if you end up with a truly
terrible tattoo — or if maybe you just don’t love Limp Bizkit as much as you used to — we
do have the technology to erase your tattoo. Mostly. Laser tattoo removal works by using heat to
break up the ink-pigment particles into even smaller pieces. Then, your white blood cells can finally clear
them away, just like they always wanted. But the color of your tattoo can determine
how hard it’ll be to remove. Black tattoos tend to be the easiest to get
rid of, because they absorb almost all wavelengths of light, so they heat up and break apart
when treated with pretty much any wavelength. Other colors — like red, green, blue, and
white — require special lasers, to make sure that the wavelength being used is the one
that will be most easily absorbed by the pigment. But even with the proper laser, tattoo removal
doesn’t (always) remove all of the ink — and on top of being extremely painful, it has
its own risks, including scarring. So if you’re going to get a tattoo, don’t
bank on being able to get rid of it if you change your mind! As tattoos become more mainstream, we can
hope that we’ll be able to develop better inks and improve our removal techniques. But in the meantime, like I always say, think
before you ink. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, just
go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishow
and subscribe!

100 Comments

  • Chris Horry

    I've considered getting a tattoo, but I figure if I continue to get bored of my desktop wallpaper every week or so I'll regret it within a month.

  • First Name Last Name

    is there really a fake tattoo that you can get thats lasts a loger time than the sticker like ones and hurts like the real thing?

  • eggsngrits

    This video describes perfectly why I don't have a tattoo — the permanent/impermanent paradox. The tattoo is permanent, but little bits of it aren't, creating a faded, blurred effect years later. My uncle had sailor tattoos from his time in the Phillipines while in the Navy. One was a bikini-clad girl line drawing that was blurred somewhat. The other was a green/gray blob — was it a lizard? an alligator? a paisley? It wasn't attractive by the time I first noticed it at age five or six. I simply couldn't live with a deteriorating anything on my skin like that. Technology is certainly better now, but I'm not risking it. To those who have them, take care of your tat, don't be like my uncle.

  • fcfdroid

    loved this! yeah that's why I dont want one. It's perfectly fine if women get tat's but I prefer them not to have tattoos because it distracts from the natural flow and beauty of skin. Just preference really.

  • Brenda Singer

    Get something that speaks to you. Never get a lover or spouses name, couples break up. Never tattoo your neck, hands, or face. It's almost impossible to work in certain feilds. Never get gang or hate group tattoos. See above. Never get drunk or high before getting a tattoo. Obvious reasons apply. Above all NEVER have someone practice on you, attend a tattoo party, or reuse needles.
    Permanent art that means something to you done by a licensed tattoo artist can be quite enjoyable for years to come. ❤💎🐯🐲🐍🐠🐉🌹🍀🌴🌵🌺🍄🍍🍺🗽🎭🎨⚓🌈🌠🔥🌊🎃⚽⚾🏈🎲🎮🎵🎸💲🔮✝🇮🇹

  • Kit Vitae

    i noticed my tattoo, which is a lot of lineart rather than a big chunk of colour, had the sharp lines become more soft-er lines in the first few weeks. i guess that's the ink right at the edge drifting and being taken away by white blood cells, not just fading specifically?

  • Nathan D. Springer

    First tattoo, though planned, I was completely wasted. Noticed a incredible amount of bleeding- forgot alcohol is a blood thinner. Years later text across my upper vertebrae, can attest to more perceived pain. Lame.

  • SuperFlyJack

    how embarrassing would it be if he had a tattoo? especially after that stupid " think before you ink" also I thought he was going to talk about how tattoo are a part of our culture.

  • villen

    The tattoo on my elbow really didn't hurt anymore than the rest of my arm, but the vibrations and the thought of the needles hitting the bone is kinda cringe worthy

  • rainynight02

    I thought on it for five years before I got my first tattoo. Just to make sure I did really want it. Have two others I want done, just gata get the money and well, get in shape for em. Xp

  • Thomas Travelinglinguist

    Hi Scishow, long time viewer and avid fan. I enjoyed this video but i do have to mention something: Aspirin and painkillers like it are not bloodthinners. This is a very common misconception. Aspirin is classified as an anti-platelet drug, so the concern is that if someone takes it before getting a tatoo they'll bleed more and potentially loose more of the ink/have a worse looking tattoo in the end. I regularly de-bunk this when i teach First Aid and CPR. I'm a paramedic, and soon to be RN, so if you need someone to help out with SciShow Health or someone to do a guest spot let me know!

  • Neo Prototype

    Too bad skunk-head boy mikey can't get rid of those digusting holes all over his head. He probably has piercings on his dick and balls as well.

  • Sarah Jane

    Just something I thought while watching: I got a tattoo on the back of my shoulder and it hurt less than getting my nose pierced, which both hurt less than getting the cartilage of my ear pierced.

  • Darticus the Great

    Never really understood getting a tattoo just because it's cool. With it being permanent and with so many of peoples' opinions and such changing over the years, I couldn't see the appeal outweighing the risks for me.

  • RedwoodGeorge

    Thanks, Michael – very timely since I just got my first tattoo four days after this video came out (been planning it for months) It was nice to know more about the science behind the process 🙂

  • Alex Moores

    My guess is that bony area tats hurt more not because of the skin being stabbed but the periosteum being poked even if it's not directly damaged. Density of nerve endings is only part of the issue and damage to the periosteum feels way worse than to skin. Again only a guess

  • Krista Jamieson

    a grad student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS Canada is developing a skin cream that breaks down tattoo ink more effectively and significantly less painfully than laser removal. It would be awesome if it proves effective! I mean, getting a tattoo is still costly and painful, but being able to remove old and faded ones after a few decades would probably be nice.

  • spindash64

    I just realized people expect others to put more thought into tattooing than anyone these days expects you to put into marriage. Remember when those were supposed to be lifelong PROMISES, not contracts? I'm 19, so yeah, me neither

  • Jaspirita

    Also, especially in these winter months, if your tattoo is looking a bit faded, try using lotion on top of it to moisturize…. You might just have dry skin lol.

  • vgman94

    My mother hates tattoos. I've never understood it. I respect the art (if they're good looking tattoos), but I wouldn't get one for myself. If someone wants one though, I see nothing bad about it.

  • Taylor L.B.

    When deciding to get a tattoo try to think on what you would have chosen 10-15 years ago. If that seems like a bad idea now maybe reconsider getting a tattoo at this point in your life.

  • Farhan Faisal

    here's several tips for removing tattoos quickly
    Make sure you consume plenty of fruit and vegetables.
    Make sure you have enough vitamin C
    Use herbs which cleanse the liver including milk thistle
    Use herbs with infection fighting properties such as dandelion root and burdock and others including huang qi
    (I discovered these and why they work on Chads Tattoo Tactic website )

  • Rivit Raven

    not exactly true about the tattoo removal part. you can also just have the tattoo inked over with skin toned ink. many professional artists do this to help cover botched areas from bad tattoos. infact at the moment my aunt has a few tattoos from earlier years that were not so good. and as of late she asked me to create some new tattoos to cover up the old. it's actually a much cheaper alternative to getting a laser procedure plus it's not going to be on your medical record since laser surgeries performed on the skin are done by dermatologists which will always make sure that you have medical insurance before doing any procedure that changes your body.

  • Mattia Mariola

    So please understand that just as you may dislike the idea of "blemishing" your skin, and that its permanently damaging it, equally, people (as well as entire cultures) find tattoos a good way of symbolizing something incredibly significant in their lifetime (ie. the birth of your child, loss of an important family member), and is therefore a good coping mechanism when you don't want to lose memory of something that is highly cherished. Not to say that people do get incredibly stupid, regrettable tattoos, but if they are done correctly, they can be a very special, worthwhile investment. So just as how you decorate your house with photos of memories and heirlooms, etc. a tattoo is equally "decorating" yourself with something meaningful. That's what the right to freedom to do what you want with your body is about.

  • calichef1962

    My ex was tattooed nearly everywhere– except his face, soles of his feet and his genitals. He said that the tattoo on the palm of his hand hurt the worst, rib cage was second worst.

  • Preston Siegler

    Can't wait until September 16th! Getting my first two tattoos and I'm so excited! Thanks SciShow for giving me the science behind it!❤

  • TsubasaDreams

    I actually was talking to my tattoo artist and he was telling me a story how he went to a huge conference about pigments and such, where he got to meet with Bayer. According to this Bayer rep, the tattoo industry makes up such a tiny amount of the pigment market that they really don't see an incentive to develop 'better' pigments/inks specifically for tattooing so merp there's that. I don't think we'll be seeing much progress in that regard.

  • _pudu

    1:03 "theres not really any scientific evidence to back that up"
    so yeah lets just ignore the hundreds of thousands of people who get tattoos on bony areas that experience pain because no science…..

  • Sir Shadowplay

    i wish i had watched this video before getting tattoos but also i wasnt in a right mindset so…whatevs ill just cut my arm off

  • Anttjuan Reid

    1 in 5 people? It feels more like its rare to find an American with no tattoo than with a tattoo but I guess statistics say otherwise 🙄.

  • I Cant Walk

    I feel like people who are against tattoos are the same people who put their dogs in strollers, and walk their kids on a backpack leash

  • Rose Bishop

    good advice I got from someone with really pretty tattoos. draw and plan out all the tattoos you want , get the designs exactly how you want them and then wait 5 years. which ever you still like if you like any get them. The reason behind it is you aren't the same person you were when you were 10 as your were when your 15 or 15 to 20. you are a different person but, if you like it after that many years it is a safe bet you will still like it when your old.

  • Rose Bishop

    good advice I got from someone with really pretty tattoos. draw and plan out all the tattoos you want , get the designs exactly how you want them and then wait 5 years. which ever you still like if you like any get them. The reason behind it is you aren't the same person you were when you were 10 as your were when your 15 or 15 to 20. you are a different person but, if you like it after that many years it is a safe bet you will still like it when your old.

  • LizardNejuma

    Hi Scishow, So according to this video there is no real and efective way to get rid of tattooes? what about those natural method that tend to stimulate you lynfathic system to eject or expulse the ink from your skin?

  • guitarherochampion92

    I will never get a permanent tattoo…I can't understand why anyone would. Airbrush tattoos are more fun anyway, they actually fade and you can reuse that area of skin over and over again instead of just once with a permanent tattoo. What's more, if you really want to remember an awesome airbrush tattoo? Just take a picture of it and have it printed, or put it on the background of your phone. That's what I would do ☺

  • Nomo 4u

    Just got a half sleeve tatt the other day, glad I waited a while before getting it done. I can always cover it up with a shirt which is dope for certain occasion.

  • Drake Mcfee

    Good tip I've got a fair bit of ink and I've always found that getting a henna artist to put the tattoo on in Henna obviously let you know if you really want it and how it will look on your skin not to mention that kind of helps prevent impulse tattooing!

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