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Study Shows: Tattoos May Change the Way You Sweat

Big News for the Inked & Fit Crowd

Tattoos are a personal choice, one we typically make without considering how it may affect our health, but one new study shows that tattooing your skin with permanent ink may permanently change the way you sweat. The main purpose of sweating is to help the body cool off, and people with extensive tattoos, especially on the back, arms and other areas densely populated by sweat glands, may excrete less sweat, and the sweat they do excrete may have a higher concentration of sodium. These findings are particularly important for professional athletes, who sweat more than most other people and also seem to have an affinity for covering their bodies in tattoos.

This new tattoo study, published last month in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, was conducted by Maurie Luetkemeier, a professor of integrative physiology and health science at Alma College in Michigan, and two of his undergraduate students, Kyle Aho and Joe Hanisko. For the study, the researchers analyzed 10 healthy men, “all with a unilateral tattoo covering a circular area at least 5.2 cm” matched by an equal amount of ink-free skin on the other side, and found that when they applied small chemical patches to the skin to induce sweating, the side with the tattoo produced far less sweat than the other side.

Not only did the tattooed skin sweat less than the tattoo-free skin, the composition of the sweat was also different, the researchers found. According to their report, the sweat from the tattooed skin contained nearly twice as much sodium as the sweat from the untattooed skin, regardless of the age of the tattoo, which suggests that tattoos may cause permanent changes within the skin. This may be caused by blocked sweat glands or, more likely, lingering inflammatory cells that change the chemical environment within the inked skin in ways that affect the response of the sweat glands and the amount of sodium incorporated from nearby cells. (More on Next Page)

But Why?

When you get fresh ink the tattoo artist makes thousands of tiny punctures in the skin with a dyed-filled needle, depositing the ink under the skin at a similar depth to eccrine sweat glands, which are responsible for regulating body temperature. According to this new study, the body sees the ink as a foreign substance and when the tissue at the site of the tattoo becomes “damaged,” the immune system is activated, sending cells to carry off small amounts of the ink to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. Other immune cells merge with the remaining ink, and still other cells produce an inflammatory response, helping the tissue to heal.

When your glands produce sweat, the skin absorbs from the sweat sodium and other electrolytes, which “are essential to fluid balance and neuromuscular functioning,” and this new study shows that tattoos may at least partially block the reabsorption of these electrolytes. But don’t head to the tattoo removal clinic just yet. According to Luetkemeier, it is unlikely that permanent ink, however extensive, would have a big enough impact on sweating to cause the person to overheat or suffer other serious problems, even during exercise. Luetkemeier likens permanent ink to severe burns, in which the person loses the sweat glands in the affected skin, noting that “the body compensates” by simply increasing sweating from the uninjured skin. So, there you have it!