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Skin Cancer Explained

Tattoos and your skin cancer risk: Here’s what you need to know

While tattoos don't cause skin cancer, they can make it harder to detect
MoleMap Team
November 16, 2023
5 minutes

The preva­lence of tat­toos in Aus­tralia has shown an increase to 15 per­cent in 2004 through 2005 from the 10 per­cent in 1998. In fact, The Dai­ly Tele­graph reports that one in five Aus­tralians are inked, accord­ing to a sur­vey of 1,000 Aussies.

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Do tattoos cause skin cancer?

While there is no con­firmed link between hav­ing a tat­too and an increased risk of skin can­cer, there are uncon­firmed spec­u­la­tions about it. Clear­ly, being tat­tooed can make it more chal­leng­ing to eas­i­ly spot a sus­pi­cious spot. And since every­one is at risk of melanoma or oth­er types of skin can­cer, you need to take extra cau­tion with reg­u­lar skin cancer check up and ear­ly detec­tion, whether or not you have tattoos.

That said, a study pub­lished in Aus­tralian Fam­i­ly Physi­cian (AFP) Immunol­o­gy shows that tat­toos can make it hard­er to detect skin cancer.

Take two cas­es in the study as an example.

Case 1

A 65-year-old man with three malig­nant melanomas in his past sought out his der­ma­tol­o­gist for a melanoma screen­ing. He said he had no new lesions he was con­cerned about. The der­ma­tol­o­gist care­ful­ly inspect­ed him, par­tic­u­lar­ly a tat­too he had on his left del­toid where he found a pale pink papule. The micro­scop­ic exam­i­na­tion con­firmed a nodu­lar, mul­ti­fo­cal, and super­fi­cial basal cell car­ci­no­ma.

Case 2

A 55-year-old man with numer­ous non-melanoma skin can­cers in his past also vis­it­ed the der­ma­tol­o­gist for a head-to-toe skin exam. He also said he had no new skin lesions he was con­cerned about. He did, how­ev­er, have large and lengthy tat­toos on each of his low­er limbs. The der­ma­tol­o­gist found a ker­a­tot­ic lesion on the man’s right tat­tooed low­er leg, which the histopathol­o­gy con­firmed was a ker­a­toa­can­thoma.

Why tat­toos may increase your risk of skin cancer

Sci­en­tif­ic Reports pub­lished a peer-reviewed report stat­ing there’s a pos­si­bil­i­ty ink con­tains tiny heavy met­al par­ti­cles such as:

  • Chromi­um
  • Nick­el
  • Cobalt
  • Man­ganese

There are also oth­er tox­ic impu­ri­ties. Tat­too inks usu­al­ly have over 100 addi­tives and 100 colourants, accord­ing to the Euro­pean Chem­i­cals Agency that con­veyed their con­cern there was no guar­an­tee of the safe­ty of inks due to lack of regulation.

And one colour in par­tic­u­lar is more of a safe­ty con­cern than oth­er colours. A chem­i­cal used often in cre­at­ing white ink, tita­ni­um diox­ide, increas­es your risk of devel­op­ing can­cer.

Tat­too ink could cov­er up any clin­i­cal skin can­cer signs. It can dis­guise sub­tle changes like what you’ve just read about in the two cas­es above. Assess­ing both non-pig­ment­ed and pig­ment­ed lesions that a tat­too cov­ers is hard for the following:

  • Patients to see with their naked eye (macro­scop­ic level)
  • Health prac­ti­tion­ers to see at both clin­i­cal and der­mo­scop­i­clevels (the use of a der­mato­scope to exam­ine skin lesions)
  • Histopathol­o­gist­sto see even using a micro­scope (micro­scop­ic level)

Exten­sive sleeve tat­toos may mag­ni­fy their risk due to delay lesion detec­tion by patients and their fam­i­ly or friends. Ear­ly detec­tion is espe­cial­ly impor­tant in patients who have dys­plas­tic nevus syn­drome or a his­to­ry of melanoma.

But accord­ing to Ter­ry Slevin, Occu­pa­tion­al and Envi­ron­men­tal Can­cer Risk Com­mit­tee chair, if you have a tat­too sleeve, you shouldn’t pan­ic. It’s impor­tant to know there hasn’t been any direct evi­dence of any­one devel­op­ing can­cer because of their tat­toos.

If you’re con­cerned about a lesion that’s under your tat­too, have it exam­ined and mon­i­tored close­ly by skin can­cer experts.

Whether you have tat­toos or no tat­toos, skin can­cer detec­tion should occur ear­ly for the best pos­si­ble outcome.

To learn more about melanoma and oth­er skin can­cer, get a head-to-toe mole check with total body pho­tog­ra­phy, and an expert der­ma­tol­o­gist diag­no­sis, book your MoleMap appoint­ment today.

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MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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