Could Your Tattoos Camouflage Skin Cancer?

Celebrity tattoo artist Dan Gold creates an image of Albert Einstein at his London Studio. Gold has done tattoos on Britney Spears and Kate Moss. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A poorly placed or designed tattoo can cause more than buyer's remorse down the road — it might camouflage dangerous skin cancer symptoms. That goes for the well-designed ones too.

"Having tattoos can make it more difficult to see signs of skin cancer, particularly melanoma," explains Columbus-Ohio-based dermatologist Dr. Alan J. Parks in an e-mail interview. "The tattoo pigment can conceal moles or make it more difficult to notice color changes in moles, which are the earliest sign of melanoma."

Indeed, melanoma in particular is nothing to mess around with. As the deadliest type of skin cancer, the disease is responsible for more than 10,000 U.S. deaths each year. Failure to spot the telltale signs (growths on or resembling moles that are usually black or brown) can be a fatal error.

"The reason skin cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer is because most people detect it early (by seeing these signals on moles). So being covered by tattoos and missing these signs puts you at a higher risk of having skin cancer that won't be as likely to be cured," Parks says.

Just because everything's kosher when the tattoo is first done doesn't mean it'll stay that way, either. "If you do tattoo, consider avoiding inking over an actual mole or immediately surrounding it, especially if you fall into a higher risk category for developing melanoma," says Beverly Hills dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse via email. "Also, don't ink over the scar of a previously removed atypical nevus [mole] or melanoma, because it makes it more difficult to monitor the skin for any recurrent pigment." 

She notes that tattoo artists themselves can be knights in the battle against skin cancer. "I have been referred patients with melanoma within tattoo sites by tattoo artists who were excellent observers and recognized that the moles looked atypical," Shainhouse recalls. "Tattoo artists are at the forefront, since they see skin all day (and most of their clients probably do not have regular skin exams, either self or by a medical professional). Tattoo artists can be very helpful in finding/pointing out irregular skin lesions that might be skin cancer or melanoma and advising patients to have them checked out before tattooing over them."

Ken Schwartz, of Centreville, Virginia has a family history of skin cancer, but doesn't let that suck the joy out of getting tattooed. "I constantly monitor myself for moles or other growths, anything that looks different [or] might have grown since I last looked," he says via e-mail. "My tattoos are all color and it's harder to see a skin color-change in that area, so I spend a little more time looking." He also sees a dermatologist every two years for a professional once-over.

Ken Schwartz loves his tattoos but also checks himself regularly for skin cancer.
Ken Schwartz

People with ink aren't the only ones who need to keep a close eye on skin changes. Certain groups are at higher risk for developing melanoma and other types of skin cancers, including those with fair skin, light eyes and a history of sunburn or other significant ultraviolet light exposure (ahem, tanning beds), according to Shainhouse. Folks with a plethora of moles (especially atypical ones) and a personal or family history of skin cancer are also at increased risk. However, having tattoos doesn't increase your chances of getting skin cancer, she adds. 

Houtan Chaboki, M.D., a facial plastic surgeon in Washington, D.C. says some patients with tattoos might be less likely to get a skin examination because treatment could require altering a tattoo's appearance.

Schwartz, however, begs to differ. "I love my tattoos, they are very personal to me. But if there was cancer in those areas, sorry tattoo, but you take a back seat.  And then of course, I'd probably celebrate my struggle ... by getting another tattoo!"

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