Could tattoos make it harder to keep cool? U of O lab aims to find out

Researchers at the University of Ottawa are looking for a few heavily-inked young adults to take part in a study on whether tattooing affects the body's ability to stay cool.

Research could affect firefighters, soldiers — and anyone working outside on days like today

Three men show the tattoos on their backs on the first day of the Frankfurt Tattoo Convention on April 21, 2017. University of Ottawa researchers are now studying whether heavy tattooing could interfere with the body's ability to regulate its temperature. (Michael Probst/The Associated Press)

Tattoos have long been associated with coolness — but could they also be interfering with the body's ability to stay cool?

That's what Glen Kenny wants to find out.

Kenny is the director of the University of Ottawa's human and environmental physiology research unit, and his team is looking for heavily-tattooed young adults willing to come into his lab and sweat it out for science.

"At the end of the day, what we want to see is, does that have an impact on their ability to work in hot environments like today?" Kenny told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.

Ottawa's forecast Monday called for a daytime high of 32 C. A heat warning is also in effect.

'Can you handle the heat?'

Kenny's lab possesses a rare tool: a human-sized "calorimeter" that measures how much moisture an individual's three to four million sweat glands can generate.

The calorimeter gives the research team a "really accurate way of defining somebody's heat tolerance," he said.

"We have the ability not just to look at it from a very localized effect," said Kenny. "We want to look at it from a whole body perspective. Because ultimately, what we want to know is: can you thermoregulate? Can you handle the heat?"

Limited research

It's important research, he added, because as tattoos become increasingly mainstream there are more people working outdoors — firefighters, soldiers, and athletes are just a few examples — who are heavily inked.

The existing research is also limited: aside from one recent study suggesting that small tattoos could reduce localized sweating, Kenny said scientists really don't know what risks, if any, large-scale tattooing poses.

"If tattoos somehow limit the body's ability to dissipate heat, that may create [a danger] or place somebody in a greater risk of a heat-related injury," Kenny said.

"I don't really believe that there's a major effect," he added. "That's why we want to sort of figure it out right away — so people don't get worried."

Kenny's team is looking for people between the ages of 18 and 35 who've tattooed more than 40 per cent of their bodies to take part in the study.