The Thrill Is Gone
Sure, that butterfly is cute. But will you still be happy with it tomorrow?
From the day she got it, Coralie Meslin of Baltimore had doubts about her tattoo. She was, after all, only 15 years old--underage--when she sweet-talked the tattoo artist into etching two fish onto her belly. "I looked down, and I was like, 'Oh, God, what have I done?' "
It's a familiar feeling to many a tattoo bearer, increasing numbers of whom are women. "It used to be bikers and sailors," says Elizabeth McBurney, a dermatologist and professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center who performs laser tattoo removals. "But now that there's less social stigma associated with them, we're seeing more and more women." Indeed, an estimated half of all 18-to-29-year-olds has at least one tattoo. And the biggest complaint among them, according to the Food and Drug Administration, is dissatisfaction. "We've had a big increase across the board in people seeking tattoo removal," says Ross Van Antwerp, a physician who zaps away tattoos at the Laser Center of Maryland. "But we do see more women than men."
Even before discontent sets in, tattoos carry risks that go beyond the misshapen butterfly. The FDA does not regulate tattoo parlors or their colorful inks, which can include the same industrial-grade pigments used in printers or car paint. "It's incredible when you think about what's being done--injecting foreign bodies beneath the skin," says McBurney. While many states have guidelines for tattoo parlors that range from minimum age requirements to the outlawing of tattooing (in Oklahoma), others have no regulations, says Aisha Hasan, spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, which has called for greater state oversight of tattoo parlors.
There is a reason, after all, that the American Association of Blood Banks makes tattoo recipients wait one year before donating blood: Unsterile tattoo equipment can transmit hepatitis B and C and other infectious diseases. Then there are the potential allergic reactions. It is rare, say specialists, but chemicals present in the dyes--most often red or cinnamon colors--can react with the sun and produce rashes, nodules, or hives. There have also been reports of people with tattoos experiencing swelling or burning during MRI scans, as the iron in some dyes can be pulled by the machine's magnetic forces.
Tattoo removal options include dermabrasion and skin grafting, but laser removal is fast becoming the most popular choice for women. The American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery recommends that customers look for specialists--most often dermatologists--who have training and experience in how to use lasers. Some states require doctors to perform laser treatments, while others allow nonphysicians to do it.
Essentially, the laser zaps the metal ions in the tattoo pigments, fracturing the inks into microscopic pieces that are easily disposed of by the body. Q-switched lasers, the kind commonly used, use high bursts of energy for very short periods of time--nanoseconds, in fact. It's enough to splinter the inks, but not enough time to build up heat within the skin and damage it.
Risks. But there can be complications. Eye damage from deflected rays is a concern with any laser surgery, as are blistering and scarring. Patients who have experienced allergic reactions when their tattoos are exposed to the sun may experience the same reactions--or worse--if they receive laser treatment, says McBurney.
But those risks are relatively rare. The procedure can be painful, so most surgeons use numbing cream and local anesthetics to ease the discomfort, which tends to vary based on skin sensitivity and pain tolerance. "Most patients tell me that it hurts about as much as when they got the tattoo," says Melanie Grossman, an attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York who has a laser surgery practice.
Laser removal is no quick fix either. Getting rid of a tattoo typically takes six to eight visits and sometimes more if the ink is green or sky blue, among the toughest colors to eradicate because of their chemical makeup. Customers generally pay about $2,000 for a six-session regimen--visits are usually scheduled one month apart to allow time for healing--and up to $300 for subsequent sessions. "I'm looking at almost an entire year of my life, doing this every month, to get rid of the tattoo completely," says Meslin, now 28. All for a $20 tattoo.
This story appears in the November 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.