Inked … then Blinked

Having Second Thoughts about a Tattoo?

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Posted on 07.07.14 – Diversions, Lifestyles

Long gone is the day when tattoos were mostly associated with salty sailors boasting a bulging anchor and “mother” on their biceps. Tattoos today have gone mainstream, soaring so much in popularity in recent years that it seems just about everyone has at least one. That’s why it might be surprising—or not—to learn that tattoo removal is also on the upswing.

“I got an angel with wings tattooed on my calf when I was very young and I was in that ‘this is so cool’ phase,” says Drue Ogden of Frederick. “As an adult, it was not so appealing. It was not pretty and it had to come off. It didn’t represent me anymore.”

She’s not alone. In 2011, doctors performed nearly 100,000 removal procedures, up from 86,000 the year before, according to the most recent data available from the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. There are many reasons a person may opt to have a tattoo removed. For some it’s simply to make room for more body art, or to redo a bad job. However, the most common reason is a change in peer group or environment. Simply put, as in the case of Ogden, what seemed like a fabulous idea at 18 may not seem so swell a few years down the road.

“As an adult, [the tattoo] was not so appealing. It was not pretty and it had to come off..’”—Drue Ogden

Surveyed as to why they decided to get inked in the first place, a desire to be rebellious usually bubbles up to the top of most people’s list. While it may seem new and trendy to the young, the art of tattoo has been around for thousands of years and reaches across many cultures. The young and rebellious aren’t typically thinking about the future of the “canvas.” For instance, the colors can fade and images blur with time, especially as body parts migrate southward.

It may also be hard for them to relate to how they will feel with a lifestyle change. Often, women decide to remove tattoos when they become mothers. Others may begin to feel they are being misjudged because of their body ink, which may affect their careers.

The trouble is, while people can change their mind in an instant, a tattoo is meant to last a lifetime. What might take 30 minutes to create in a tattoo parlor can take a year or more to remove, and at a cost that could be 10 times as much as the original cost of the tattoo. Think of a tattoo like a marriage: It’s easy to get into, but much more complicated to get out of.

“I had a person come in one day and ask to have a tattoo removed immediately because they wanted to enlist (in the military),” says Dr. Michael Warner, a dermatologist and owner of the Frederick Cosmetic and Skin Surgery Center. “In a case like that, I have to excise the tattoo. I can do that as long as scarring will be acceptable to them.”

PATIENCE FOR PATIENTS

Tattoos can often be completely removed without scarring, but it takes a lot of time. Lasers are the typical removal method and the skin can only accept so much energy at once without being burned; there must be healing time between sessions.

Lasers use short pulses of intense light that pass through the epidermis layer and are absorbed by the tattoo pigment, breaking it into small fragments. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s publications Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?, research has shown that some of the pigment particles are metabolized and excreted by the body while others are stored in the body’s lymph nodes.

The type of laser used for removal depends on the colors in the tattoo. Every color of ink absorbs different wavelengths of light; therefore, multi-colored tattoos may require multiple lasers. Interestingly, lighter colors such as green, red and yellow are the hardest to remove.

Often, women decide to remove tattoos when they become mothers, others may begin to feel they are being misjudged because of their body ink.

The best candidates for laser removal are people with light to medium complexions. It is also important to note that tattoo removal should be done when a person is their palest. “We want the skin as pale as possible to start with,” Warner says. “And we don’t want the treated area subjected to sunlight right after treatment. So, some of our patients take a break from their office visits during the summer. However, I’ve had some really motivated people that continue right on through the warmer months and just keep the area bandaged to block the sun.”

And it isn’t cheap. Traditional laser treatments start about $200 per session for a small tattoo. It may take up to two years of bimonthly visits to completely remove the art.

According to a study by the American Academy of Dermatology, the new “R20” method of tattoo removal is much more effective than conventional laser treatments. This method uses the same laser as the traditional method, but instead of making one pass per session over the tattoo, the procedure is repeated multiple times, resting 20 minutes between each pass, and involves a longer rest period of six to eight weeks between office visits. The cost is more, but it requires fewer sessions, so the total price for removal is similar to traditional methods.

Ogden’s entire tattoo has been removed except a little touch of blue that looks like a small vein. “No one even notices it,” she says. “The procedure was great. I have no scarring and I’m very pleased with the results.”

NO PAIN, NO GAIN

Some have described the feeling of treatment as rubber bands being snapped against their skin. The level of pain reported really depends on an individual’s tolerance for pain. Numbing creams are used, and in some cases injections of anesthetic.

“That’s an advantage to working with a medical office,” says Warner, who’s been removing tattoos for 12 years. “We are familiar with, and competent at, working with local anesthetics so we can use the right product to serve a patient’s needs.”

Predictably, with the increased interest in tattoo removal comes an increase in providers. Tattoo removal has even become a franchised business. However, Warner points out that there is no standardized training for tattoo removal at this point, making it even more important for potential patients do their homework.

“Experience is an important factor,” he says. “You don’t want your skin to be subject to somebody’s learning curve.” The FDA recommends consulting with a medical professional. More detailed information about the removal process and guidelines for finding a potential provider can be found at www.fda.gov or www.asds.net.