Tattoos that could come – then go
December 20, 2006
You once adored Janie, but Laura is your honey now. That dragon circling your arm wowed your college buddies, but the executives in the office aren’t nearly as impressed.
Just as the number of Americans sporting tattoos has soared in the past decade, so has membership in another group: people who want their bodywork removed. Only then do they come to know the truth – that laser tattoo removal is painful, expensive and may not do the job completely.
Soon there may be a solution to the phenomenon of tattoo regret – removable tattoo ink. A company founded by doctors says it will begin selling such ink early next year. The ink is applied just as with any tattoo, and will remain in place as long as desired. But if the owner later decides that the artwork has to go, it can be removed with a single laser treatment.
The founders of the company making the removable ink, New York-based Freedom-2 LLC, say their goal is to help those who have come to regret permanently decorating their bodies. But backers say the technology will not only simplify tattoo removal, it will create an expanded market for body art — since consumers can be now assured that the tattoo will come off easily and without exorbitant cost.
“I think it will open a floodgate for people who want tattoos,” says Dr. Bruce Saal, a Los Gatos, Calif., dermatologist who specializes in laser tattoo removal and has invested in the company. “People will say, ‘I want to do something a little wild. Now that I know it’s not a lifelong commitment, I’ll do it.’ “
But others wonder if tattoo artists and their customers will spurn the new ink if it doesn’t meet their artistic needs.
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Almost one-quarter of U.S. adults have at least one tattoo, according to a study of 500 Americans published September in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Of those, 17 percent were considering removal, the survey found.
Many doctors who perform laser tattoo removal, however, say that as many as half of all people with tattoos eventually want them off.
“A very high majority of people would desire to have them removed if there was a simple and easy way,” Saal said.
Most conventional tattoos can be removed, but even a simple, small, one-color tattoo can require several laser treatments at a cost of around $1,000. Removals of large, multicolored tattoos can require more than a dozen laser treatments and cost $5,000 or more. Laser tattoo removal is not covered by medical insurance.
Multiple treatments are needed to avoid skin damage from the laser. During conventional tattoo removal, brief pulses of energy are aimed at the tattoo, heating skin cells and breaking up the ink particles. Then the body’s natural ability to remove foreign particles clears away the ink fragments. The top layer of skin often bleeds slightly and forms scabs. Because of inflammation produced by the laser, only a small area of skin can be treated at one time.
There are other complications too. Doctors often don’t know which type of ink was used, at what depth the ink was applied and other factors that could help make removal easier, Saal said. (He is a member of Freedom-2’s scientific advisory board.) Scarring can occur if multiple treatments are needed, and some tattoos can’t be completely removed.
Some people who have gotten tattoos recently may have assumed that laser tattoo removal would deal with any regrets, says Dr. Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C. But, she adds, they are often stunned to learn of the cost and time involved.
“They thought it would be as easy to take off as to put on – in just one session,” she said. “But now with this new dye and polymer, we will be able to remove it in one session.”
Freedom-2’s ink is removable because it is encapsulated in tiny beads made of polymethylmethacrylate, a synthetic material commonly used in surgical glue and artificial joints. The fact that the ink is encased in the tiny spheres doesn’t affect the application of the tattoo or its appearance, says Martin Schmieg, chief executive of Freedom-2.
Because of the way the beads are constructed, they fall apart when laser energy is applied, Schmieg said. Unpublished tests on humans and animals show that only one laser treatment is typically needed to fully remove a Freedom-2 tattoo and that most Q-switched lasers that doctors use for tattoo removal can be used for the job. A one-time laser treatment to remove a tattoo should cost less than $1,000, Schmieg predicts.