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December 9, 2013 at 10:09 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

I Don't Want My Tattoo Anymore... Now What?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I'll never forget the second date I had with my wife years ago.  We had a great time hiking and kayaking in Northern Michigan.  As we were packing up our gear, she reached across me revealing a curious red blob on the skin of her lower back.  When I later asked her about this finding, her cheeks turned as red as the blob on her back.  She began a story of a fateful evening back in her college days. Over the years, that mark became less desirable.  A few different attempts at removal left the red blob.  As a doctor, I've heard many similar stories.  This blog will highlight tattoo cautions and removal options.

Tattoo Statistics

Nearly one quarter of adults under the age of 50 have at least one tattoo.  While tattoos have held different levels of popularity among different cultures, they presently seem as popular as ever.  While clothing trends, hair styles and jewelry can be readily changed, however, tattoos are more difficult.  According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 17 percent of tattooed adults have seriously considered having them removed.

Tattooing of the skin occurs when the pigment is changed in the deep layer of the skin called the dermis.  In classic ink tattoos, ink is inserted through the superficial layers of the skin via repeated jabs with a needle and the ink becomes fixed permanently in the pigment.   

Removal Options

It's safe to assume that persons getting tattoos enter into the relationship with their artwork with the understanding that it will be permanent.  Virtually every parlor requires a signed agreement testifying to the permanence to that which is about to be inked onto the body.  Unfortunately, when times change, tastes change and relationships end, what seemed like a good idea then is not the case in the here and now. 

  • Tattoo Edit: Sometimes the best option for getting rid of an unwanted tattoo is to put a more meaningful tattoo over the former, unsightly tattoo.  Tattoo artists often can be quite creative in making this possible.  Make up is another option but time consuming and tedious.
  • Dermaabrasion or Salabrasion: Old school tattoo removal techniques involved either dermabrasion or salabrasion.  Dermabrasion involved peeling or sanding away of the skin to get to the imbedded ink.  Salabrasion works much the same way using a potent salt solution.  Both techniques are painful and often trade a scar for the artwork. 
  • Laser Removal: New school tattoo removal involves the use of lasers.  The more advanced of these are quality-switched lasers which means that they have sensors which distinguish between the base flesh tone and darkened ink areas.  A pulse is sent selectively to the darker area which breaks down the ink-tissue into small particles that can be absorbed by the body. 

Things to Consider

  • Tattoo vs Skin Tone Contrast: Some caveats of laser removal are that tattoos with greater contrast will yield better results. Lighter skin and darker ink are ideal. 
  • Colors In Tattoo: Colors such as reds, greens and purples are quite difficult to remove. 
  • Age of Tattoo: Older tattoos are easier to remove because the ink is more apt to breakdown by the laser. 
  • Time Until Full Affect: In general it takes an average of six treatments, a month apart.
  • Cost of Removal: Total cost can is based on size and number of treatments but can easily get up in the four figure realm. 
  • Pain Tolerance: While more tolerable than the old school techniques, laser removal is also painful. Patients have told me that it feels like getting flicked or smacked repeatedly in the same area.  After the procedure the area burns for a few days.

Cautions in Getting Tattoos

I won't harp again here on the fact that tattoos are permanent.  A decision to get a tattoo should not involve a whim or the influence of alcohol or other substances.  A tattoo should reflect a life-long statement, not a trend or transient interest.  In the U.S., HIV and hepatitis risk is nil.  Use caution in other places, especially developing countries where sterile regulations may not be strict. 

Tattoo removal is possible with the help of laser technology.  The technique is not perfect, however.  Factors such as color contrast and age of the tattoo play in as far as outcome.  The process can be both painful on the skin and the pocketbook.  The best advice regarding tattoos is to "think before you ink."

Photo Credit:

Jemaleddin Cole@flickr

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