The social acceptability of tattoos has changed in recent years. No longer limited mainly to sailors and bikers, colorful and creative tattoos have become more mainstream.

 But when it comes to health risks, tattoos are like real estate: location matters. Doctors warn tattoo artists and customers to be careful to avoid covering up moles that could become cancerous.

An estimated 40 percent of adults between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. Each year Americans spend more than $1.65 billion on tattoos from one of 21,000 tattoo parlors in the country. Indeed, in many Texas cities, it seems like there are more tattoo parlors than coffee shops these days.

The composition of tattoo ink has changed dramatically over the years. Today, many modern tattoo inks (especially intense reds and yellows) contain organic azo dyes with plastic-based pigments that also have industrial uses in printing, textiles, and car paint, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. As a result, there are many unknowns about how these inks interact with the skin and within the body and whether they are responsible for an increasing number of complications.

As for cancer risk, the good news is that no increased prevalence of skin cancer has been found in people with tattoos. For patients with skin cancer, the inks used in tattoos have not been shown to increase the risk of recurrence, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. But that doesn’t mean tattoos are necessarily completely safe.

Covering up a problem

Skin cancer can occur within a tattoo. That’s why doctors recommend avoiding placing a tattoo over an existing mole – and thus hiding your opportunity to notice changes that may indicate skin cancer.

Another concern is that tattoos sometimes result in a bump or lesion that mimics skin cancer. Besides potentially ruining the tattoo, this type of lesion can so closely resemble a type of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma that it may require a biopsy. In some cases, the lesion may need to be treated as a skin cancer, with additional surgery.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It is often further categorized as melanoma or non-melanoma cancer. Most non-melanoma skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma, which rarely spreads to distant sites in the body, but it can be disfiguring and may invade nearby tissues.

The second most common type of non-melanoma skin cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. Both often develop on sun-exposed parts of the skin, but can develop on other parts of the skin as well.

Helpful tips

If you are planning to get a tattoo, consider these recommendations from the American Academy of Dermatology:

  • Choose a professional tattoo parlor and a licensed tattoo artist.
  • Insist on seeing equipment in sterile packaging.
  • Let the tattoo artist know if you have a reaction. If a problem lasts more than one to two weeks, see a board-certified dermatologist.
  • Check with a board-certified dermatologist before getting a tattoo, especially if you have a chronic skin condition such as psoriasis, eczema, or a tendency toward keloid scarring.
  • Avoid tattooing over a mole because it will make it more difficult to diagnose a problem if the mole changes in the future.

Remember that when it comes to skin cancer safety, what tattoos potentially hide is more important than what they may reveal about your personality and artistic sensibilities.

Suresh Ratnam, MD

Suresh Ratnam, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas. To learn more about exciting advancements in cancer treatment, visit www.TexasOncology.com or call 1-888-864-I CAN (4226).

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