(Un)Inked: Laser Tattoo Removal
The reasons for having a tattoo are as personal and varied as our individual life stories. For some it comes from a desire to assert independence, express a unique personal style, or to celebrate a relationship or milestone event. For others it’s simply a spur-of-the-moment decision made without much – if any – thought as to how an indelible stamp of ink on the skin could impact career opportunities, or come to no longer reflect their personal taste.
Sandy’s story is different.
Five years ago, Sandy chose to have a tattoo as a way of processing the pain she continued to endure after the loss of her young son in 2004. The tattoo, which stretched from her shoulder and upper arm down to just above her elbow, depicted an angel with flowing hair and unfurled wings, and the name of her son, Andrew, written in script just below.
“Having the tattoo was an emotional decision,” says Sandy, a registered nurse and healthcare education director. “It was a memorial tattoo, made out of grief. Our child had passed away, and at the time I felt that the tattoo made his memory more permanent. For me, it was a way of remembering him.”
Within a short time, and even as she continued to work through her loss, however, Sandy began to feel that she had made a mistake. She found that the tattoo drew unwanted – and at times unkind – attention from others, and that the location of the tattoo limited her clothing options, particularly in the work environment.
“I’ve attended several formal events, and did not like that the tattoo was visible if I wore any kind of halter style or sleeveless dress,” she says. “I realized that I just did not like the way it looked. I never wear anything sleeveless unless I’m at the pool, and even there I am self-conscious about it, especially when I run into a work colleague or a former patient that I have cared for. I made a very permanent choice that I have come to regret. I’m ready for it to be gone.”
Tattoo Removal: A Growing Trend
Sandy is not alone. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, over 45,000 Americans chose to have their tattoos removed via laser surgery in 2013. At the Skin Center Medical Spa in Pittsburgh, PA tattoo removal is requested by a growing number of clients who are electing to have their tattoos removed for personal or professional reasons — from individuals who had their tattoos drawn 10-20 years ago, to those who come in just days after, all looking to undo their ink.
Laser Tattoo Removal: How Does It Work?
Advances in laser technology have made complete or nearly complete tattoo removal possible for the majority of individuals who are able and willing to follow through with the multiple treatments necessary to fully fade ink pigments from the skin.
The Skin Center uses the MedLite® C6 Q-Switch ND: Yag laser, the most effective treatment in the industry. The laser works by emitting light that is rapidly absorbed by the tattoo ink, causing the ink to break into tiny particles which are then naturally flushed out by the body over time.
Choosing a high-end laser is particularly important as inks used by tattoo artists are not regulated by the FDA, and there are many different types on the market today. The MedLite® C6 laser is capable of dramatically lightening or eliminating a broad range of ink pigments, including red, blue and purple, as well as green and yellow, the most difficult ink colors to remove. In Sandy’s case, her technician needed to remove aqua blue, black and yellow pigments.
How Many Treatments Will I Need to Remove My Tattoo?
The number of laser tattoo removal treatments a patient will require depends on the color and type of ink used, their body’s response to treatment, as well as the depth to which the inks have penetrated the skin. With two treatments completed, Sandy’s tattoo has faded significantly, but she will require at least three to four additional treatments for the laser to break apart the remaining pigment to the point that the tattoo is no longer visible. She will need to be patient with the process, as laser tattoo removal specialists at The Skin Center recommend waiting at least eight to 12 weeks between treatments to allow for treated pigments to be flushed from the body, and for the skin to recover.
Does Tattoo Removal Hurt?
“The actual treatment feels like someone is snapping a rubber band against your skin, but it stops instantly when the treatment stops,” says Sandy.
A topical anesthetic ointment is routinely applied to the skin prior to the tattoo removal treatment to help alleviate discomfort.
Immediately following a treatment session, patients typically experience some slight discoloration of the treated area, and possibly temporary swelling. This is normal as the skin responds and begins the healing process.
A Clean Slate
Though her tattoo is fading, Sandy is still self-conscious. “I am looking forward to wearing tank tops and sleeveless dresses without worrying and to taking family photos without adjusting my position or asking people to make sure that they don’t get my tattoo in the photo,” she says. Most of all she says she’s relieved to have begun treatments.
“I have no regrets about starting the tattoo removal process, I’m just grateful that there is this treatment available. Fifteen years ago I would not have been able to take these steps.”
And though her son’s name will no longer be visible on her arm, Sandy will continue to carry his memory in her heart.
“Grief is like a pebble in your shoe… the pain never goes away, but you do learn to live with it, it just takes time.”