It seems that tattoos are everywhere these days, but along
with the increase in people getting inked, the number of people undergoing
procedures to have a tattoo removed is also on the rise, experts say.
The US Food and Drug Administration, which regulates both
tattoo inks and the laser devices used to remove the body art, cautioned that
deciding to have a tattoo removed is a lot easier than the removal process
itself. The experts advised that tattoo removal is a painstaking process and
the result may not be perfect.
A January 2012 poll by Harris Interactive showed that of the
21% of American adults who have a tattoo, 14% regret their decision to get one.
This research may come as no surprise to the American Society for Dermatologic
Surgery, which reports that its doctors performed nearly 100 000 tattoo removal
procedures last year, an increase of 14 000 from 2010.
Removing ink not that
Although more Americans are taking steps to remove their
tattoos, the FDA noted that removing tattoo ink is easier said than done. The
agency explained that when a tattoo is created, an electrically powered machine
injects ink past the outer layer of skin into the dermis, or the second layer
of skin. Dermis cells are more stable so the ink placed there will be
Safe tattoo removal requires laser surgery performed by a
dermatologist who specializes in tattoo removal, said the FDA's Mehmet Kosoglu,
who reviews applications for marketing clearances of laser-devices. The lasers
emit concentrated light energy in short bursts, which is absorbed into the
pigment. The lasers then break the pigment apart into smaller particles, which
are metabolised, stored or excreted by the body.
Several types of lasers have been FDA-approved as
light-based, prescription devices to lighten or remove tattoos, including a
laser workstation marketed by a Massachusetts-based company to remove both
tattoos and benign skin lesions.
Complete removal not always possible
The procedure, which uses pulsed lasers that emit
concentrated light energy in short bursts, complies with FDA requirements for
safety and effectiveness and has been used in tattoo removal for the past two
decades. The entire process takes time and the results may not be perfect.
FDA experts pointed out various colors of ink absorb
different wavelengths of light, so tattoos with more than one color may need
more than one type of laser. They noted that lighter colors, such as green, red
and yellow, are harder to remove than dark colours, such as blue or black.
From start to finish, tattoo removal typically requires six
to 10 treatments, depending on its size and colors. A few weeks of healing time
is required between treatments, the FDA added.
"Complete removal, with no scarring, is sometimes not
possible," Kosoglu said in an FDA news release.
The pain involved in the process of laser tattoo removal
varies from person to person. The sensation involved has been compared to being
spattered with drops of hot bacon grease or being snapped with a rubber band.
The treatment can also be adjusted depending on a patient's comfort level.
How the skin will
react after procedure
The FDA said laser devices are cleared for use by, or under
the supervision of, a health care professional who understands which laser to
use, how skin will react and how to treat the skin after the procedure.
"If you have any concerns about having a tattoo removed,
it's a good idea to consult your dermatologist, who is knowledgeable about
laser treatments," FDA dermatologist Dr Markham Luke said in the news
Dermabrasion, or "sanding" away the top layer of
skin, cutting away the tattoo and sewing the skin back together, is another
FDA-approved method of tattoo removal. The safety and effectiveness of
tattoo-removal ointments and creams that you can buy online, however, has not
"The FDA has not approved them, and is not aware of any
clinical evidence that they work," Luke said. He noted that these products
may actually cause skin reactions, such as rashes, burning, scarring or changes
in skin pigmentation.
The FDA report was published online on the agency's
Consumer Updates page.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides
more information on the risks associated with tattoos.