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Myth Busters, Skin Cancer

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

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Team MoleMap Creator
Posted 16/01/18

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.

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 checks 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 skin check with total body photography, and an expert dermatologist diagnosis, book your MoleMap appointment today.

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