Currently, nearly 50 million U.S. citizens have at least one tattoo decorating an area of their body. Millions more will decide to get additional tattoos each year as well. Because of the popularity of tattooing, dermatologists are quickly discovering that people who deliberately choose to conceal a particularly unattractive birthmark or mole with a tattoo are making it extremely difficult to detect changes in skin hyperpigmentations that may indicate development of melanoma. Since half of all melanomas emerge from cellular disruptions occurring in pre-existing moles, monitoring of moles for changes in color, symmetry and texture is vital to detecting melanoma in its early stages. Unfortunately, discovering a suspect mole is more difficult when it is covered with a tattoo.
Even removing a tattoo is problematic in regards to detecting melanoma in its early stages. Laser devices used to remove tattoos tend to eliminate pigmentation in a mole or other hyperpigmented skin lesion produced by melanoma cells. Therefore, when no pigment exists in an area of skin due to laser removal of a tattoo that previously hid a suspicious mole, any odd changes in pigmentation will not be easily detected. These “pale” subtypes of traditional melanomas called amelanotic melanomas are more dangerous than typically dark-colored, cancerous skin lesions because they do not appear to be atypical and are also more aggressively active in nature.
Are Tattoos Linked to Higher Incidences of Skin Cancer?
No evidence exists that correlates higher rates of skin cancer with tattoos. Inks used to create tattoos are actually a non-carcinogenic pigments made from plastics, metal salts or iron oxide. Although permanent, unless subjected to several laser removal sessions, tattoo inks are harmless and tend to fade in time.
What dermatologists are concerned about is the number of tattoos people are placing on their bodies. Instead of one or two on the ankle or upper arm, many people are now opting to tattoo over 50 percent of their bodies. When the back is entirely covered with intricate and colorful tattoos, the ability to detect abnormal changes in moles or the emergence of new moles or other suspicious skin lesions becomes that much more difficult. Someone who is more concerned about “inking” every inch of their body may be neglecting a potentially fatal case of melanoma that could have been stopped in its early stages of development by having their skin professionally examined.
Before You Get “Inked”
If you plan on having a series of tattoos created to cover a substantial part of your body, consider visiting Mayoral Dermatology so an experienced dermatologist can examine your skin to determine if you have any odd-looking moles, lesions or discolorations that may need further investigation.
Obtaining a sample of a suspicious mole or lesion for closer examination under a microscope is called a biopsy. One of four different kinds of biopsies is performed to get a sample of the lesion–shave, punch, incision or excision biopsy. All can be accomplished using a local anesthetic, with only the incision and excision biopsies requiring a minimal amount of stitches. Results from a biopsy are generally available within several days and are categorized as normal, abnormal or cancerous. Abnormal biopsies of moles or lesions indicates that benign growths were detected in the sample, such as keloids, seborrheic keratoses and harmless skin tumors. However, it could also mean that pre-cancerous cells were seen that often compose squamous or basal cell lesions. Other abnormalities could indicate the presence of psoriasis, lupus or bacterial/viral infections.
Detection of pre-cancerous or cancerous cells in a biopsy sample will require additional treatment methods that eliminate the cells and prevent the cancer from spreading. Cryotherapy, chemical peels, photodynamic therapy and cutting-edge laser surgery are the primary treatment procedures offered by Mayoral Dermatology to remove moles and lesions that harbor pre-cancerous or cancerous skin cells.
Tattoo Removal if Skin Cancer is Detected
Failing to receive professional skin examinations before getting tattoos and regularly receving skin examinations afterward may result in needing to remove one or more of your tattoos if an abnormal mole or skin lesion forms underneath the tattoo. Some risks are associated with laser removal of tattoos, especially skin hyper- or hypopigmentation at and around the edges of the tattoo. However, these risks are minimal in comparison to tattoos concealing evidence of melanoma or pre-cancerous lesions that can rapidly reach deeper layers of the skin and eventually, into other areas of the body.
Removing Problem Moles before Getting a Tattoo
The best way to avoid problems with skin cancers remaining undetected and untreated is to simply remove any medium-sized to larger moles or lesions existing in the area where you want to get a tattoo. Not only will this dramatically reduce the risk of skin abnormalities developing into skin cancer without you noticing any unusual changes due to being hidden by a tattoo but removing moles and lesions will also facilitate the tattooing process and eliminate any noticeable imperfections in the tattoo.