Older man with tattoos on his arms giving a peace sign

Tattoos and Skin Cancer

Last updated: February 2023

I don't have any tattoos, but I know plenty of people who do. Some are tiny and single-colored. Others are described as a "sleeve" and cover most of the arm and are brightly colored.

Tattoos can be very interesting and beautiful and are often very personal for the bearer. We have come a long way since I was a child when it seemed that only former servicemen wore them.

Since tattoos cover skin, this has begged the question, "Can skin cancer be found within the borders of a tattoo and do tattoos actually cover them in some way?" The bigger question then becomes, "Can tattoos hide melanoma and other dangerous skin cancers?

Skin cancer hiding in tattoos

According to a Harvard Medical School article, Robert H. Shmerling, MD, German doctors described the case of a young man who wanted to remove a large, multi-colored tattoo from his arms and chest. This man eventually had a mole removed after 47 laser sessions to remove the tattoo and it was indeed stage II melanoma. This was not the first case that melanoma was found inside a tattoo.1,2

Will tattoos make a skin assessment more difficult?

The article goes on to say that tattoos may make it difficult to evaluate moles. The ink can hide suspicious changes in both the shape and colors of moles. It can also break up the pigment inside a suspicious mole, thus making medical assessment more difficult.1,2

Things to think about when considering a tattoo

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the following considerations are wise:3

"When considering a new tattoo, consider getting it on skin that is free of moles. A tattoo can make it more difficult to see the earliest signs of skin cancer."

"See a board-certified dermatologist if you have a skin reaction or if your tattooed skin is changing in any way. Your skin may have a bad reaction to the ink in a tattoo. This can happen immediately after getting a tattoo or years later. A change could also be a sign of skin disease. A dermatologist can diagnose what’s happening and treat it."

A special note to young adults

Tattoos are common with young people these days. Small surveys of college students show that 20 to 25 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo. Tattoos may lessen the chances of early detection and require special precautions.4

In addition, it is important for this generation (as with every generation) to understand the dangers of tanning and the importance of early detection. This is especially important since data indicates that tanning devices can emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation in amounts 10 to 15 times higher than the sun during peak hours.5

Spreading awareness

As a melanoma survivor, I am often asked to look at a mole of someone who suspects cancer. Of course, I always refer people to a medical professional first. If someone has a lot of tattoos, I will make a special effort to look at that skin and note what I may see. With melanoma rates climbing, and with more and more tattoos, and with what we know about early detection and survival rates, this just makes sense.

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