Will there ever be a wipe on, wipe off answer to unwanted tattoos?
There’s been another tattoo removing cream story doing the rounds.This time it’s the merest suggestion of a product, yet to even undergo animal testing but it’s longevity and prominence as a story shows how much interest or rather hope there is that one day folk will be able to wipe away their unwanted ink.
Dr Ben Mills, GP and founder of The tattoo removal company considers the possibilities and problems.
Lets just remind ourselves what a tattoo is.Ink – made up predominantly of metal particles (coloured inks)or carbon (black) is pushed into the dermis of the skin by the tattooists needle.The dermis is the permanent layer of your skin, below the constantly flaking off epidermis.So once these metal or carbon particles are in your dermis they are there for good – they won’t grow out.They also don’t dissolve or breakdown and the immune system does very little to remove them.So your tattoo will look pretty much the same from the day you get it to the day you die.
So why doesn’t the immune system, which does daily battle with viruses, bacteria and cancer cells not recognize this ink as foreign material and destroy/remove it? The answer is a combination of two things –
1 tattoo inks themselves have been selected/designed to be as inert as possible -metal fragments are very difficult to destroy.
2 secondly, more importantly, the immune system has developed over millions of years to fight living or at least biological things, ie viruses and bacteria and cancer cells which might threaten the life owner of the immune system.What the immune system has learnt is not to get too worried about what is essentially a bit of grit getting into the skin.The immune system has learnt that this won’t multiply into a overwhelming infection or cancer.Makes sense from the immune system point of view – don’t waste your time and energy on things that won’t kill you.
So once the ink gets into the dermis it won’t grow out and the immune response is limited to a bit of hoovering up of the ink particles by phagocytes – the bin lorries of the immune system.But these phagocytes then remain in the area of the tattoo forever more, hence your tattoo design doesn’t spread across your skin with time which would be the case if the ink-filled phagocytes wandered off.
The latest cream idea is apparently going to wake up these phagocytes and get them to leave the area. One of the key problems with this is that we already have creams that both ‘wake up’ the immune system – creams that are use to fight certain skin cancers or sun damaged skin, and creams that quieten down the immune system, the more familiar steroid based creams we use in eczema and inflammatory skin conditions.None of these have unfortunately been shown to make much difference to tattoos.So it’s not clear how the new cream-idea is any different.And if it was changing the way the immune system worked, how would that affect the rest of the body? Would the ink filled phagocytes moving away just mean that your tattoo spread out across your skin or along the lines of your lymphatic system? Not a good look.
So it’s a lovely idea but as usual, the devil is in the detail.