In the last two decades, the prevalence of tattoos has been steadily on the rise. Tattoos, at one time most commonly associated with sailors and war veterans, have increasingly become a standard adornment. A 2008 survey on tattoos indicated that approximately 14% of Americans bear the popular and permanent skin decoration. A&E’s television series, Inked, which first aired in 2004 has given rise to many reality TV imitations whose popularity is a solid indicator that tattoos have become a mainstream part of pop culture.
As the number of people getting tattoos increases, so too increases the number of people who will come to regret their tattoo. A recent survey out of the UK suggests that one third of individuals with permanent ink now regret having had the procedure done. Commonly, the reason for wanting a tattoo removed is a simple change in taste over time, but motives vary; from mistranslation of Asian characters to the realization that a tattoo is far more “forever” than the relationship with a former lover. This article will briefly discuss modern tattooing and then go on to examine common tattoo removal techniques, their efficacy, and the associated costs of different removal methods.
Modern day tattoos are created by injecting tattoo pigment into the second layer of skin, the dermis. While the top layer of skin, the epidermis, is constantly being shed and regenerated, the dermis is a stable layer of skin. Because tattoo pigment particles are relatively large, they remain embedded in the dermis rather than being absorbed in the body. The stability of the dermis and type of pigment used both contribute to the permanency of the tattoo.
With the use of the right ingredients and equipment, a good tattoo artist can create a tattoo with bright colors and clean lines that will remain vivid for years. However, all tattoos are subject to fading as a result of several factors. Over time and through exposure to sunlight, the pigments used to create the tattoo will break down and be absorbed by the body. The dermis is also subject to decay and regeneration resulting in some loss of tattoo pigment. Finally, changes in the tattoo bearer’s skin, usually loosening or stretching, can cause the original tattoo image to become distorted and give it the appearance of fading. Natural discolouring and distortion are frequent complaints made by people seeking tattoo removal.
Tattoo Removal Techniques
For as long as people have been getting tattoos, they have been regretting getting tattoos. Due to the high demand, a large market has grown surrounding tattoo removal. Historically, tattoo removal has been costly, time consuming and generally more painful than the tattoo procedure itself. Even when successful, early tattoo removal methods were likely to leave significant, unsightly scarring. Naturally, consumers want painless, simple and cheap when looking for a way to reclaim their virgin skin. Marketers have been more than willing to oblige, promising more appealing removal techniques with mixed results. Recent advances in technology have allowed for relatively painless tattoo removal with little or no scarring. Two popular methods are laser tattoo removal and tattoo removal creams.
Laser Tattoo Removal
Modern laser removal involves the use of what is known as Q-switched lasers. These lasers apply a pulsed high energy beam to the tattooed area of the skin in order to break down the pigments so they can be more easily absorbed by the body. Different colored inks contain different ingredients and therefore are targeted by the laser using varying spectrums of light. Some colors are more susceptible to break down and require fewer treatments for full removal. Q-switched lasers were first used in tattoo removal procedure beginning in the 1980s. Today’s technology allows for complete removal of tattoo ink with very little incidence of scarring.
Laser tattoo removal requires the patient to attend successive treatment sessions usually separated by approximately two months. The number of treatments required is variable depending on the color and location of the tattoo as well as skin type. In between treatments the broken down pigments are naturally absorbed by the body. Treatments continue until tattoo removal is complete. Compared to earlier methods, Q-switched laser treatments involve only moderate pain, which is usually offset by a topical anesthetic. The procedure typically results in slight skin discoloration, which normally resolves over time. The risks involved with laser tattoo removal are minor when the appropriate post-treatment care instructions are followed.
Tattoo Removal Cream
As an alternative to laser procedures, tattoo removal creams are more affordable and less invasive. This appears to be the extent of the benefits offered by these products. The Mayo Clinic advises that there is no evidence to suggest that the creams offer an effective means of removing tattoos. The National Institutes of Health offer no information on creams as a means of tattoo removal or lightening.
Tattoo removal creams are widely available for purchase on the Internet; however, there is not much in the way of independent research supporting the cream distributors’ claims. The website www.tattoo-removal-research.org, presumably an autonomous research organization, appears to be little more than a thinly veiled advertisement for the creams with “top reviews.” At best, the creams’ marketers tout that their products will contribute to a lightening of the tattoo. As far as this researcher can tell the only cream useful in tattoo removal would be a topical anesthetic cream applied prior to a laser removal treatment.
Tattoo Removal Cost
Effective tattoo removal comes at a cost significantly higher than having the tattoo done in the first place. Laser treatment sessions typically cost several hundred dollars. Depending on color, location, and size, 10 to 15 sessions are normally required for complete removal. The average tattoo can cost $2000 to $3000 to be removed and will usually be spread out over 18 to 24 months.
By comparison tattoo removal creams are cheap. Readily available on the internet, the creams cost between $50 and $150. The price point makes this at-home solution an attractive alternative to the drawn out, expensive laser treatment option.