Tattoo pigment mimicking metastatic malignant melanoma

Dermatol Surg. 1996 Jan;22(1):92-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1524-4725.1996.tb00578.x.


Background: The benefits of elective lymph node dissection (ELND) in the treatment of melanoma remain controversial, however, it may be beneficial in some patients. Tattoo pigment from decorative tattoos may migrate to the regional lymph nodes. In patients who develop malignant melanoma and who have been tattooed, this pigment may clinically mimic metastatic disease.

Objective: We wish to alert clinicians that pigment from tattoos may migrate to the regional lymph nodes. In the unusual instance of a tattooed patient who develops malignant melanoma, when undergoing ELND, surgeons should rely on histologic confirmation of metastatic disease before altering operative plans.

Methods: ELND for malignant melanoma, in a patient with a history of decorative tattoos that had been removed by dermabrasion, was performed. Black lymph nodes that clinically resembled metastatic disease were identified. Subsequent histologic examination revealed normal lymph node architecture with a heavy collection of black pigment. Mass spectrophotometry showed this pigment to be consistent with tattoo dye.

Results: A patient who had undergone dermabrasion for removal of decorative tattoos developed malignant melanoma in the same extremity. Clinically suspicious black lymph nodes were identified during ELND. Histologic examination did not reveal metastatic disease. Additional therapy was not considered intra- or postoperatively even though the clinical suspicion of metastatic disease was high. The patient was not subjected to any unnecessary emotional or physical distress pending histologic confirmation.

Conclusions: Tattoo pigment in the lymph nodes may clinically mimic metastatic melanoma. Histologic confirmation of metastatic disease should always be obtained before additional therapy is considered.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Axilla
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Lymph Nodes / chemistry
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology
  • Male
  • Melanoma / pathology*
  • Skin Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Tattooing*