When ink is injected in the dermal layer of skin to make a design on the body, it is called a tattoo. Tattoos are considered permanent adornment to the ten million Americans who have at least one of them on their body. The flip side of that statistic is that about 50 percent of those tattoo wearers are sorry that they ever got one in the first place.
How Can a Tattoo Be Removed?
Until the 1980s, the only tattoo removal procedures available involved painful, scar-producing techniques. The choices were dermabrasion, cryosurgery or excision with a skin graft, if needed.
In the late 1980s, Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation or Laser became the technique of choice for tattoo removal. With these techniques, a dermatology physician uses specialized lasers, usually a type called a Q-switch, to specifically target the ink without harming the surrounding tissue. Laser tattoo removal leaves only minimal scarring for a majority of people.
The Laser Removal Process
Laser treatments are bloodless, effective and carry very few risks. Tattoo removal is done as an outpatient procedure that is completed in one or more sessions, depending upon the size, depth and color of the tattoo. Treatments are typically scheduled at least three weeks apart to allow for healing time between each session.
Lasers work by emitting short pulses of intense light that pass through the top layers of skin and are absorbed by the tattoo pigment. This absorption of light causes the pigment to shatter into smaller particles and disperse through the body. The body’s immune system then slowly absorbs the particles and eliminates them from the body.
The Color Challenge
Some colors of pigment are more difficult than others to remove. Black and blue inks are the easiest to remove because they absorb all of the laser wavelengths. Therefore, they are more effectively impacted by the Laser's light and break down more readily. Red, green and yellow inks selectively absorb the laser wavelengths, making them more difficult to remove. These colors need to be treated with a more specialized laser that offers varied wavelengths.
There is no guarantee that any tattoo can be completely removed, but great strides have been made in removal techniques to improve effectiveness. Some people undergoing tattoo removal develop hyperpigmentation or a collection of color in the skin at the site of the tattoo. Others can develop hypopigmentation, which is the absence of normal skin color at the tattoo site. Only five percent of people having laser tattoo removal develop permanent scarring where their tattoo used to be.
Tattoo ink is currently unregulated by any public health commission. There is growing concern among researchers about the health risks associated with black ink, which is used in most tattoos. Black ink is composed of at least some component of soot and iron oxide. Both of these ingredients contain potentially hazardous substances.
Using soot in black ink is most common in tribal-type tattoos and in the prison system, where commercial pigments are not readily available. Researchers claim that the black ink can remain in the skin for a lifetime, absorb harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, migrate to the lymph nodes, and potentially cause skin cancer and/or weaken the skin’s integrity.
Getting a tattoo is a commitment and should only be done after serious thought and consideration are given to its permanence and potential risks. Once the tattoo is done, it requires a skilled process at the hands of a qualified dermatology surgeon to remove it. What's more, getting a tattoo removed is considerably more painful than getting a tattoo in the first place. Remember, even with multiple tattoo removal treatments and a variety of techniques, there is no guarantee that the tattoo will completely disappear.