Some are simple designs rendered in black and white. Others are complex, colorful splashes inked in red, blue, green, and yellow. No matter what they look like, large or small, tattoos are increasingly on display as the weather gets warmer and the shining sun prompts people to shed layers of clothes. Suddenly, it seems, just about every other person you pass is showing off a tribal arm sleeve, flowering vines twining around a skull on one calf, or even a small butterfly perched on the lower back. Tattoos are common these days, but so is something else: tattoo removal. Albuquerque’s Western Dermatology Consultants invites readers to mark the beginning of the warm days of tattoo season with a look at how far tattoo removal has come (hint: a long way, given the modern laser options available).
For a long while, there was nothing people could do if they got a tattoo they later regretted. Tattoo removal was simply not a practical reality, a situation that gave rise to the visual joke of a guy getting his sweetheart’s name tattooed on his arm—just under a series of other girls’ names, each with a line through it.
As tattoos began to make their way from far-flung tribes to more populated urban areas via sailors and explorers, so, too, did tattoo removal methods. The earliest techniques involved scraping or cutting the unwanted skin away, or possibly burning it with a hot iron. The tattoo removal “treatment” frequently removed the offending or embarrassing image, but left a large scar and the memory of great pain in its wake.
Heated needles and acids came next, followed by skin grafts, and then by cryogenic freezing paired with microdermabrasion, a more modern form of scouring away the ink.
By the 1960s and 1970s—centuries after tattoos began dotting European ports—skin experts had developed and begun using lasers as a form of tattoo removal. As with many examples of technology, the method has progressed from crackling beginnings to a widely used, safe, and effective procedure today.
Early tattoo removal lasers were only effective on certain, dark inks in light-colored skin, due to the way they interacted with pigment. Now, lasers are available that can work on a variety of colored inks on a range of skin tones. The light energy breaks up the ink particles in the skin, and these tiny bits are then processed by the body. While there’s an immediate sensation similar to a rubber band snapping, followed by some redness, similar to a sunburn, the tissues surrounding the ink are unharmed.
Just as getting a tattoo is a personal choice, tattoo removal is driven by unique motivations. For some people, an unwanted tattoo is a constant reminder of a past they would rather leave behind. For others, it’s an impediment to employment, particularly if the tattoo is readily visible, notably offensive, or both.
By some estimates, tattoo removal procedures performed on patients who no longer wanted their ink rose by 440 percent in the decade starting in the mid-2000s.
On the other end of the equation, some people choose to hide the evidence in lieu of total tattoo removal. A clever cover-up can disguise any number of regrettable images or words, transforming what’s now considered a mistake into a newer tattoo that (hopefully) more accurately reflects a person’s current place in life.
Available numbers, though, seem to show that tattoo removal is the more common option. Covering one tattoo with another may be seen as something akin to fighting fire with fire: effective when done properly, but creating more problems when not.
To learn more about modern tattoo removal, Albuquerque’s Western Dermatology Consultants team is prepared to explain what is available. Call one of the practice’s offices at (505) 855-5503 or (505) 897-1313, or the SPA @ WDC (505) 855-9267, for more information. Their website is westerndermatology.com.