The chemistry of TATTOOS: Video reveals why the 3,000 puncture wounds endured per minute result in a permanent inking

  • A tattoo needle can puncture human skin at up to 3,000 times a minute 
  • The needle punctures the outside layer of skin and enters the dermis
  • When the needle makes a hole microphage cells try to close the wound
  • The cells engulf the ink to destroy it then get stuck in a gel-like matrix
  • Over time tattoos fade as the immune system breaks down the pigment

Tattoos have been a part of human culture for thousands of years, and they don't seem to be going away any time soon.

Chances are that you or someone you know has one - whether it represents something meaningful or serves as a reminder of a drunken night that you would rather not be reminded of.

If you've ever wondered why they are permanent, what the ink is actually made of or why they fade, a new video released by the American Chemical Society reveals the answers.

Scroll down for video   

The needle punctures through the outside layer of skin - known as the epidermis, and enters the  dermis beneath, Rachel Feltman from the Washington Post explains. Capillary action draws the ink down from holes in the epidermis, where it is captured by microphage cells. Pictured, a file image of a tattoo artist at work 

The needle punctures through the outside layer of skin - known as the epidermis, and enters the dermis beneath, Rachel Feltman from the Washington Post explains. Capillary action draws the ink down from holes in the epidermis, where it is captured by microphage cells. Pictured, a file image of a tattoo artist at work 

In the video, Rachel Feltman from the Washington Post explains exactly what is happening on the cellular level as she gets inked.

'The tattoo needles are puncturing my skin at about 50 to 3,000 times a minute.' 

The needle punctures through the epidermis - or outside layer of skin - and enters the layer beneath, known as the dermis.

Here, capillary action draws the ink down from holes in the epidermis, Feltman explains.

'The tattoo becomes permanent when my immune system tries to save me from all of these wounds that I am suffering.' 

Every time the needle makes a hole, microphage cells will try to close the wound. Because the ink is a foreign invader, these cells will engulf it to try to destroy it. 

'But instead those microphage cells with bellies full of ink get stuck in the gel-like matrix of the dermis,' Feltman explains. They remain there for the rest of your life - which is why tattoos are permanent.

WHAT IS TATTOO INK MADE OF?

If you have a tattoos on both arms, the chances are they are made of completely different kinds of ink. Pictured, a tattoo artist dips his needle in ink

If you have a tattoos on both arms, the chances are they are made of completely different kinds of ink. Pictured, a tattoo artist dips his needle in ink

Traditional tattoos used by groups such as New Zealand's indigenous Māori used materials including copper, ash, graphite, tree bark and woad for their inks.

But these days substances used in tattoos are so diverse that if you have a tattoos on both arms, the chances are they are made of completely different kinds of ink. 

But what all inks have in common is that they have two constituent parts - the solid pigment that makes the colour, which is suspended in a liquid carrier.

Liquid carriers are varied and might consist of water, witch hazel, glycerine, propylene, ethanol or even Listerine or vodka.

The pigments themselves are made of an even wider variety of ingredients.

Black ink might be made of carbon or magnetite crystals, while brown can be made from ochre.

Red might be either cinnabar or iron oxide, blue can be made of azurite and white ink is made of lead carbonate, barium sulphate or titanium oxide.

Watch the video to discover what other inks are made of. 

But the outside layer of skin is still full of ink from the needles - which is why fresh tattoos look so vibrant. 

When the skin has finished healing it will shed this outside layer, which is why tattoos fade after a few days. 

Over time, tattoos slowly fade as the body's immune system slowly breaks down the pigment particles. But for the most part, the ink will remain in the dermis, which is why tattoos are permanent. 

Traditional tattoos used by groups such as New Zealand's indigenous Māori used materials including copper, ash, graphite, tree bark and woad for their inks.

But these days substances used in tattoos are so diverse that if you have a tattoos on both arms, the chances are they are made of completely different kinds of ink. 

But what all inks have in common is that they have two constituent parts - the solid pigment that makes the colour, which is suspended in a liquid carrier.

Liquid carriers are varied and might consist of water, witch hazel, glycerine, propylene, ethanol or even Listerine or vodka.

The pigments themselves are made of an even wider variety of ingredients - watch the video below if you are curious about a specific colour. 

Traditional tattoos used by groups such as New Zealand's indigenous Māori used materials including copper, ash, graphite, tree bark and woad for their inks. Pictured, Māori Activist Tame Iti with Traditional Moko Tattoo

Traditional tattoos used by groups such as New Zealand's indigenous Māori used materials including copper, ash, graphite, tree bark and woad for their inks. Pictured, Māori Activist Tame Iti with Traditional Moko Tattoo


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