Older man with tattoos on his arms giving a peace sign

Tattoos and Skin Cancer

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.1 This was not the first case that melanoma was found inside a tattoo.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. Another report suggested that laser therapy delays the diagnosis of melanoma and there is even some concern that repeated laser surgeries may promote transformation of benign moles to melanoma (although this is not proven).3

Things to think about when considering a tattoo

According to the same Journal of American Medicine Association article cited above the following consideration are wise:

"If you are planning on getting a tattoo, either make sure that it is applied to skin that is free of moles or birthmarks or have your doctor check any moles in the area beforehand.

"If you are planning to have a tattoo removed, check for moles within the tattoo. If you notice any, ask your doctor to check them out before starting laser treatment."2

A special note to young adults

Tattoos are very common with young people these days. Statistics show that 38 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo.4 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 for this cohort as recent studies indicate that tanning salons focus their efforts on marketing to young people.5 Tattoos may lessen the chances of early detection and require special precautions.

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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