Anyone who has endured a tattoo session knows the process isn’t exactly a cakewalk. This includes the healing process. Like any other experience that breaks skin, tattoos require a healing period in which the body recovers from the trauma. A new study supports the idea that going under the needle affects our immune system and suggests that inked veterans may have stronger systems than the rest of us.
The study, recently published in the American Journal of Human Biology, followed 29 participants between the ages of 18 and 47 before and after sitting through a tattoo session. Each person’s saliva was pretested and post-tested for amounts of immunoglobulin A and cortisol, both of which can indicate stress levels. They found that those who had more previous exposure to the tattoo process showed lower signs of stress on their systems.
One possible conclusion to consider is people who heal more quickly from the tattoo process are more likely to come back for more. So, rather than suggesting that getting a tattoo can boost someone’s immune system, the study invites the thought that people with healthier systems seek out tattoos more so than others. Being covered in ink may be a sign of someone with a rocking immune system.
Christopher Lynn, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama and a co-author of the study, says, “My hope is that people with poor immune systems aren’t subjecting themselves to a lot of tattoos, and no, I don’t think it would give them as good a boost.” He is currently interested in expanding the research to see if the area of the body on which people get ink affects their immune capabilities, as well as taking his studies to the Samoan culture.
Because of the small, similar sample size of the current study—and the super-clean conditions of the shops—Lynn hopes to find out what happens to his results when studying the more traditional practices of using sharp sticks in not-so-sanitized conditions.
About the relatively new world of studying widespread tattoo health effects across cultures, Lynn says, “I don’t really expect there to be much difference in the biological implications among Pacific tattooing traditions, but one of the great things about a provocative study like this is it opens up a whole new world of questions. So who knows?”