A recent study published in the American Journal of Human Biology suggests that people with previous tattoo experience may have a better immune response to new tattoos than those being inked for the first time. That’s the finding if you read the open access journal article, anyway. If you stick to the headlines of recent writeups of the study, your takeaway was probably that tattoos are an effective way of preventing the common cold. (sorry to break it to you, but they’re probably not).
For this study, researchers collected pre- and post- tattoo cortisol and IgA salivary levels on 29 people receiving tattoos in Alabama parlors. And, this may be a good time for a very brief lesson in the human endocrine and immune systems. The hormone cortisol is released in times stress (a tattoo, an exam, a first date, being chased by lions). In addition to several helpful changes that manage the fight or flight response, cortisol causes immunosuppression. In the case of this study, this was measured by a change in levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody that helps protect against respiratory and GI infections.
Researchers found that repeat tattooers (accounting for 62 percent of participants) experienced a boost in their immune system (an increase in IgA) immediately following a session. Habituated to the process and pain, they experience less of a cortisol surge and, correspondingly, a smaller degree of immunosuppression.
First-timers, on the other hand, have the opposite response, experiencing a greater strain on their body’s immune system (reflected by a decrease in IgA) than those going in for their second (or third or tenth) session. Researchers concluded that your body may toughen up after the first tattoo, making it more tolerant of subsequent experiences. Think of it like exercise—the first time you use a weight machine you’re sore, but as time goes on your body has gotten stronger and you don’t suffer as badly.
The results of this study are not conclusive. It relied on a small sample size of predominantly white women and was performed in Alabama, where hygiene standards for tattoo parlors are high and there is a lower risk of subsequent infections. Researchers were also not able to rule out additional factors, such as whether people with multiple tattoos had stronger immune systems in the first place. You can see the relevance of this factor in the way that people who heal well after a first tattoo may be more likely to go in for a second piece than someone whose tattoo did not hold up over time. People with no tattoo experience may also be more anxious about the process, and anxiety levels also affect cortisol levels.
Despite these limitations, these findings indicate that your experience with prior tattoos influences your response when receiving a tattoo—consistent with existing knowledge about stress response. It also suggests that there may be some validity to the cultural view that people who receive multiple tattoos are robust and strong (in the US, for example tattoos are more common in athletes than non-athletes; in some cultures they are the sign of a warrior). But this study included no research on how long the protective effects observed last after a given tattoo session. There was also no data or commentary on other ways this spike in IgA might protect you or boost your overall immune system.
So I rolled my eyes at the Huffington Post headline “Sorry Mom: Getting Lots Of Tattoos Could Have A Surprising Health Benefit.” My bemusement quickly turned to exasperation when I found CBS’s “Getting Multiple Tattoos Can Help Prevent Colds, Study Says,” and Marie Claire’s Getting Lots of Tattoos Might Actually Be Good for You, among many many others. My cortisol levels were probably sky high—my body does not appear to have habituated to seeing science butchered in the media machine.
Where, I asked myself, my science friends, and everyone else who would listen, do they come up with this nonsense? Lead author Dr. Christopher Lynn, UA associate professor of anthropology, pointed out that there was difference in coverage between articles based on press releases and those written by authors who spoke to him or his colleagues directly. He also expects future research may lend some credence to these headlines. “We don’t think they just have better immune responses right there, for those few minutes. So I think it does translate to outside the tattoo studio. How long that effect lasts we don’t know and is probably highly individually variable.”
Still, I wondered how misleading an official press release can really be. The answer is...very. The title of the University of Alabama’s press release on the study is: “Want to Avoid a Cold? Try a Tattoo or Twenty, says UA Researcher.” I suppose some credit is due to UA for writing a well-worded but manipulative headline: that is, after all, how a study picks up national coverage.
Lynn recognizes that these kind of press releases and articles are sometimes necessary; there are market forces at play that drive these decisions. “It’s a dumb suggestion that people go out and get tattoos for the express purpose of improving one’s immune system. I don’t think anyone would do that, but that suggestion by some news pieces is a little embarrassing. I’ll be the first to admit that this is not life or death news...I think it’s still interesting news without having to overstate it.”
And, despite the errors in reporting, he doesn’t begrudge the coverage and hopes that the attention has a positive end result. “I’m happy people are interested. I hope it motivates students and other researchers to realize you can study pop culture from a scientific perspective and improve on what we did and maybe learn something about human nature. And if all it does is shift public sentiment away from the stigma of associating tattoos with teen pregnancy and drug use, that’s OK too.”
We are reminded, again, that it doesn’t matter if the claims in the write-ups aren’t reflected in the research. Just this month, dramatic headlines have erroneously informed readers that carbs cause lung cancer, based on a study that was actually on foods with a high glycemic index and had several design limitations. We also “learned” that healthy cholesterol is a myth, from a study limited to people with a rare genetic mutation. These studies were all important as they are, and contributed to our understanding of science and health on their own. Not every finding needs to be sensationalized or expanded to apply to the entire population.
So here’s the takeaway from this study: if you already have a tattoo, your next go around may be a less draining experience. It’s not going to make you impervious to illness, but it may give your immune system a little kick—though we don’t know yet to what degree. You should not put articles about it on your parents’ fridge to convince them that your extensive body art was actually done to help you live a long and healthy life. Just get your mom’s name tattooed on your bicep or something. I hear they love that.
Caroline Weinberg has previously written about science and health at Eater, Vice Motherboard, Aeon, the Washington Post, and a few dry academic publications. You can find her on twitter @ckw583.
Image via Shutterstock