Science Smackdown: Tattoos Vs. PiercingsPosted: January 22, 2014
The needle doesn’t even hurt—it just scratches meekly at my shoulder blade, like the world’s most gentle kitten sharpening its claws. I relax my grip on my friend Lauren’s hand just enough to give her back her pulse. Fifteen minutes later and it’s over. “All done,” says Kevin, my tattoo artist, and before I know it I’m climbing off the green surgical bed with a Band-aid and a distinct sense of anti-climax.
I suppose I’d expected my first tattoo to feel a bit more … momentous. Instead, it was basically like when I was 16 and got my nose pierced. That experience went something like this:
Actually, when I thought about it, the two were quite similar. Both involved needles, pain, and permanence. Both, teenage me thought, would help me express to the world how special and unique I was through my most easy-to-access canvas: my skin. Both have been practiced for thousands of years, and disapproved of for just as long. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you,” says the Bible (Leviticus 19:28). “Whyyyy?!” says my mom.
They can’t be all that bad, I thought. So I decided to consult science on the matter: Which is worse, a piercing or a tattoo?
First, I considered what each actually was. A piercing is, of course, a puncture wound. You’re boring through several layers of skin, usually until you get to the other end. The goal is to keep the wound open by wedging in a large piece of metal. Tattoos are wounds, too: you’re making many tiny holes with a tattoo needle, which Kevin calls “essentially a sewing machine crossed with a fountain pen.” The holes are like little wells, which the needle fills with permanent ink.
Naturally, your immune system hates this. It goes haywire, dilating your blood vessels and making the area red and tender, like a sunburn. Then it sends in armies of white blood cells to deal with the intruder. But the armies are no match for your clever body art. The tattoo ink particles are too big and heavy for the white blood cells to engulf; a stud is out of the question.
With a piercing, the white blood cells go straight for any bacteria that has made it into the wound. They die like martyrs, sacrificing themselves in a noble attempt to save you from your own stupidity. With a tattoo, all your immune system can do is repair the upper layer of skin. It scabs over and peels, sealing in your living, breathing piece of art like a picture under glass. (Cool fact: with tattoo removal, a laser breaks down these particles using specific wavelengths, until they are small enough for the white blood cells to carry them off.)
Okay, but which did my body hate more? I put my question to Anne Laumann, a professor of dermatology at Northwestern University who specializes in both. “Piercings,” she said instantly. The reason: piercings are open tract wounds, meaning they weep continuously and can get infected for months—even years—to come. If you haven’t been cleaning and rotating, those white blood cell corpses build up by the thousands, forming pockets of green-yellow pus that swell and throb and draw strange looks. (Of course, the risk of infection depends on the piercing. Belly buttons are particularly problematic, she found, whereas infections from tongue piercings can go straight back under the jaw to the neck.)
By contrast, medical complications from tattoos are actually relatively rare, Laumann found when she surveyed the inked in 2006—that is, if they’re done professionally in a tattoo parlor. (Of course, as with piercings, unsanitary needles always present the risk of transferring hepatitis and HIV.) That’s because the skin heals over, and the excess ink tends to leak out within two weeks, leaving the area as good as new. Even the ink itself is fairly safe, Laumann says, despite the fact that it isn’t regulated by the FDA, and there have been more concerns recently about permanent makeup tattoos.
Ultimately, it seems both tattoos and piercings—when applied in a clean, sterile setting—get a worse rap than they deserve. The stigma is mainly social, says Laumann, whose current project is helping give paraplegics magnetized tongue piercings that allow them to control their wheelchairs and computers. Still, after treating hundreds of tattooed patients, she has one piece of advice.
“I strongly recommend you don’t put your baby’s name or your boyfriend’s name on it,” Laumann says. “The only name that should be on your skin is your mom’s—because your mom never changes.”
I know what my next tattoo is…