The fashion for tattoos continues to grow. Today, many young people adorn themselves with a huge variety of designs on the most visible and most hidden parts of their bodies. But what happens when they decide to get rid of them? Are tattoos easy to remove? Today I am talking to Dr Rosa Taberner, a dermatologist at the Son Llàtzer Hospital in Palma de Mallorca (Spain).
Why do people get tattoos? Wouldn’t it be more logical to have temporary tattoos that could be easily removed? Tattoos have been applied since ancient times. In Europe, and above all in northern Europe, tattoos were introduced in the 19th century by English, Dutch and French sailors returning from their travels in the Americas and Polynesia, where tattoos were very popular. In recent decades, the fashion for tattoos has boomed, above all among young people. It has been calculated that just over 15% of people in Europe and 21% of people in the USA have at least one decorative tattoo. It is a complex aesthetic and cultural phenomenon and, the fact is, it is the very permanence of tattoos that makes them so attractive.
Tattoos are supposed to be indelible and long-lasting, but do they age? A tattoo is made by introducing pigments into the dermis (the intermediate layer of the skin) using a needle. Even though these pigments remain, over time the skin’s immune system attempts to remove them, usually unsuccessfully. However, this process tends to blur the pigments, particularly the finer details, and the colour starts to fade.
Is there any anti-ageing treatment for tattoos? As far as I know, there is no specific treatment that will stop tattoos from losing definition or fading over time. However, it is very likely that keeping the skin well hydrated helps to delay the ageing process.
What kind of people decide to have their tattoos removed? While tattoos are permanent, people’s personal and professional situations change over time. This can eventually make living with a tattoo rather complicated.
Some people decide to have their tattoos removed for cosmetic reasons, because they are tired of the design. Often, however, the reason is that a new partner does not share a person’s appreciation for tattoos — even less so if the tattoo bears the name of a previous partner!
It is also common for people to have their tattoos removed for career reasons, as many companies will not employ people with visible tattoos. Less frequently, the decision to remove a tattoo is prompted by medical reasons, usually an allergic reaction to one of the inks used. Some people have a tattoo removed just to replace it with another in the same area.
How are tattoos removed? At the end of the 1960s laser treatment was introduced as the most effective way of removing unwanted tattoos. However, use of laser only became widespread in the 1980s, thanks to technological enhancements that enabled colour-by-colour removal. The future seems to be heading in the direction of the use of new specifically developed inks that can be easily removed by laser. In the USA these inks have been in use since 2009.
What methods were used before laser? The fascination for tattoos goes back thousands of years, and likewise, the first attempts to eliminate them. The ancient Greeks scrubbed the skin with salt or a paste made from garlic and cantharidin, a venom obtained from certain beetles.
Other more contemporary pre-laser techniques involved dermabrasion or the controlled application of trichloroacetic acid. In some cases small tattoos were even surgically removed. The problem with all these methods is that they invariably left scars and permanently changed skin colour.
What are the medical risks of tattoo removal? Nowadays, with the latest generation of lasers, the risks are minimal if the treatments are carried out correctly by qualified professionals.
Does the size and colour of the tattoo matter? Yes indeed. The size of the tattoo is important because it determines the number of laser pulses required during the treatment and, therefore, the length of each session, which, of course, affects the price.
The colour is also important. Colours like yellow and orange can be extremely difficult to remove. Green responds unpredictably to treatment, while black and dark blue respond best to laser removal.
However, things are not always that simple, as in order to obtain a specific colour the tattoo artist may have blended pigments with different absorption spectra. So sometimes the treatment has unexpected results.
Can tattoos be fully removed or do they leave a mark? Leaving aside small “amateur” tattoos in dark colours, professional tattoos or tattoos with several colours usually leave some kind of mark on the skin, so it’s difficult to remove them completely even after many sessions.
Is any kind of medication necessary after laser treatment? After each session a scab usually forms over the treated area that may last for over a week. For best results the area should be covered with an antibiotic cream and a dressing. Patients are also advised to avoid exposing the area to the sun for several months after treatment.