New findings published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine could lead to better tattoo removal techniques that leave the skin more natural looking.
Researchers determined that tattoo pigment is held in the dermis (the middle of your three layers of skin) by a single type of white blood cell known as a macrophage.
Macrophages in the skin eat foreign material, including bits of tattoo ink, which the cells then store internally.
Blocking the immune system’s own macrophages, cells that identify and engulf cellular debris, microbes and other foreign bodies, would likely help erase tattoos permanence.
Using this technology, researchers are now working with dermatologists to create a treatment that could make tattoo removal more simple and effective than ever before.
With time, these original macrophages die and release their pigments, which get vacuumed up by new macrophages, starting the cycle over, said Sandrine Henri, who led the study.
Current tattoo-removal methods involve pulsing tattooed cells with lasers in order to fragment the pigment particles, making it easier for macrophages to transport the ink into the lymph system for disposal.
This process can take years to complete, however, because macrophages are so good at reabsorbing pigment from their neighboring cells and holding them in the dermis, the researchers wrote.
Selectively killing dermal macrophages in humans, like the researchers did in mice, could speed along the laser removal process significantly, Henri said.
“We believe that our findings may allow [researchers] to propose new strategies for tattoo-removal procedures that are more efficient and less painful,” Henri said.
With the only results currently involving mice specially designed for ease of macrophage removal, it’s hard to say if or when the knowledge can actually translate to human ink.
The team thinks their results could eventually lead to more effective tattoo removal, though the exact mechanisms are still a little vague.