Tattoo RegretPosted: June 21, 2010
Sorry You Got That Tattoo?
Summer’s here — and the tattoos are out! Is it just me, or are they getting more and more spectacular?
I’ve seen some big, eye-catching ones on young men and women, which I have to admit always leads me to wonder what will happen when age and gravity take over. I read that about 45 million Americans now sport tattoos — not all happily, as the same report said that 100,000 or so seek to have them taken off each year. I called Mary Ellen Brademas, MD, a dermatologist in private practice and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City to learn what’s involved in removing a tattoo — and as it turns out, it’s quite a process. If you have a tattoo… might get one… or know someone who may one day wonder what he/she was thinking, this will be good information to have…
Dr. Brademas told me that in her experience, tattoos proclaiming eternal passion for “Belinda” or “Bobby” (or whomever) seem to be the ones people most often regret getting. She estimates that about half the people who get tattoos eventually wish they hadn’t… even more so, I’d guess, when they learn how painful and time-consuming the process of removal can be — physically and fiscally. Health insurance doesn’t cover tattoo removal since it’s cosmetic, and the cost often exceeds $1,000. Dr. Brademas walked me through the options…
- Laser removal. This is the most common method of tattoo removal. Its price tag (several thousand dollars) is about 10 times what it costs to get a typical tattoo, and lasers are not always 100% effective at getting them off either. Plus it hurts — Dr. Brademas described it as feeling like “hot specks of bacon grease on the skin.” Laser removal works by beaming powerfully intense light through multiple layers of skin. This blasts the pigmented inks used in the tattoo into smaller particles that the body gradually expels as waste. The process usually involves several treatments over several months and often leaves a scar that you may then want to work on having removed.
- Intense Pulsed Light Therapy (IPL). This is also a laser, in this case using a very high-intensity, filtered light to obliterate the inks. It is somewhat less painful than conventional laser removal (because it uses diffuse light) — it’s also somewhat more expensive. IPL is good at removing blue and black inks, while more complex ink colors and patterns are often more cost-effectively treated with regular lasers.
- Dermabrasion and excision. Dermabrasion essentially sands your skin to remove the tattoo, while with excision it is cut away. Another option is skin grafting, where skin is taken from another site (an unobtrusive one, like behind the ear) and used to cover the tattoo. Best for small tattoos, these removal methods leave scars.
- Bleaching. Dermatologist-prescribed bleaching creams can help fade tattoos, but with varying effectiveness — they work best on very new tattoos, so this might be a good option for a tattoo you immediately regret getting. Beware of tattoo removal creams sold on the Internet. Dr. Brademas called them ineffective, at best — at worst, dangerous because some are formulated with corrosive substances (such as acid) that may permanently damage your skin. They’re not regulated, so there’s no way to measure safety.
Will It Work?
To increase your odds of success, Dr. Brademas advises that you consult a board-certified dermatologist with experience in tattoo removal — in many cities, you can find dermatologists whose practice is almost entirely removing tattoos. She said that even beyond your physician’s skill, success in tattoo removal depends on several variables…
- Depth and color of the tattoo. Light-colored, superficial tattoos, as well as older tattoos, are easier to remove than deeply placed ones. And, because laser machines must be dialed to the specific light frequency that will break up each color being removed, some colors come off more easily than others — for example, black is easier to eliminate than yellow or green.
- Location. If a tattoo is difficult for a doctor to get to — for instance, where there are folds of skin or near the eyes — it may be hard for the doctor to remove. Also, tattoos in certain areas — in particular the chest, neck, upper arm and shoulder — are more likely to leave noticeable scars no matter how they’re removed.
- Skin color. The darker your skin, the harder it is to remove a tattoo.
Source(s): Mary Ellen Brademas, MD, a dermatologist in private practice and a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.