FIRST QUARTER 2003, VOLUME 17, NO 1

Tattoo Today, Gone Tomorrow

IN THIS ISSUE

Your New Year’s Resolution: Give to Yourself

Recent Survey Reveals Increase in Cosmetic Surgery in all Ethnic Groups

Ask the Surgeon / Health Tip / What’s New

Tattoo Today, Gone Tomorrow

In the past 20 years, the number of tattoo studios has grown from 300 to over 4,000 with an estimated 10 million Americans having at least one tattoo. Some people enjoy their tattoos for life, while about 50 percent later regret their youthful expression. Are you wishing you could remove your ex-boyfriend’s name? Allow your facial plastic surgeon to evaluate it and see if you are a good candidate for tattoo removal.

Alternatives for Tattoo Removal

Since tattoos were designed to be permanent, removing them can be difficult. The effectiveness of the removal depends on the depth of the ink and the types and colors of inks used.

Before the 1980s, the options for removal were limited to dermabrasion, excision, and salabrasion. Dermabrasion uses a rotary abrasive tool to sand the layers of the skin off, thus removing the tattoo. For a small tattoo, excision involves removing the tattooed area of skin and then stitching it closed. For a larger tattoo, the skin is removed and a skin graft from another part of the body is used to cover the area. Salabrasion is an age-old procedure where salt water is applied to the surface and a sanding device is used to abrade the area. These alternatives are often painful and prone to scarring. Today, the method of choice is by laser (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation).

Understanding Laser Removal

Lasers work by producing short pulses of intense light that pass through the top layers of the skin and are selectively absorbed by the tattoo pigment. This laser energy causes the tattoo pigment to granulize. The body’s white blood cells capture the shattered ink particles. The bloodstream carries the ink-laden cells to the liver and the tattoo eventually fades. The more blood supply to the tattooed area, the quicker it fades. For example, the face has more blood supply and would be able to remove the ink particles quicker than a tattoo on the ankle.

Tattoo Researchers have determined which wavelengths of light to use for which ink color and how to deliver the laser’s output. Three types of lasers frequently used are Ruby, Alexandrite, and Nd: YAG . The technique is called Q-switching, where the laser emits short, high-energy pulses. Another, non-invasive laser is Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) technology. The broad spectrum wavelength allows the physician to select the depth of penetration to fragment various colors of pigments. Black pigment is easiest to remove. Green and yellow pigments are the hardest. Even after multiple sessions, many tattoos resist complete removal. However, improvement is often greatly appreciated by patients even when some color remains.

Although most patients do not require anesthesia, your facial plastic surgeon may apply a prescription anesthetic cream or inject a local anesthetic into the area before laser therapy. Treatment time is usually limited to a few minutes. There may be some pinpoint bleeding. Following the session, antibacterial ointment and dressing is applied to the area. The skin may feel sunburned and bruised for a couple of days. Cost varies from $100 per treatment for a small, single-color tattoo with removal in one to two sessions to $500 per treatment to remove larger, multicolored body art in as many as eight visits.

Tattoo removal has come a long way, allowing patients to take advantage of the latest techniques and technology. See your facial plastic surgeon for an evaluation of the tattoo and the proposed, optimal plan.