Demand is growing for tattoo removals. The process is improving, but it's still imperfect, painful and expensive.
In a world where so much is the same, tattooing is a way to say, “I’m not just a cog in the machine.” There are other reasons for tats, of course. Among them: personal style, a gang affiliation, commemorating a special moment, honoring someone you love, hiding a scar, and that sheepish old pretext: “I was drunk.”
Their popularity has soared
A big part of a tattoo’s appeal is that it’s permanent, a real commitment. That’s the downside, too. When you are ready to move on, the tattoo’s still there.
Tattooing is a booming industry. Nearly 8,000 U.S. businesses took in a combined $3.4 billion in 2014, although growth is tapering off, according to MarketWatch.
Harris Interactive pollsters estimate 21 percent of adult Americans have at least one tattoo, up from 16 percent in 2003. Their popularity, Harris says, varies by age group:
- Ages 18-24 — 22 percent have a tattoo.
- Ages 25-29 — 30 percent.
- Ages 30-39 — 38 percent.
- Ages 40-49 — 27 percent.
- Ages 50-64 — 11 percent.
- Ages 65 and older — 5 percent.
This may be the tattoo’s moment of glory, but research shows a stigma remains, particularly at the workplace, The Economist says.
The U.S. Army, for instance, recently tightened its policies. Now new recruits’ tattoos may not be visible below knees or elbows or above necklines, the Army Times says. Soldiers tattooed before the policy change are grandfathered in.
Tattoos are more popular among people who did not finish high school and less popular among the more highly educated, Dr. Anne E. Laumann, researcher, professor of dermatology and chief of general dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told the American Academy of Dermatologists.
Take it off
The stigma helps explain another booming business: tattoo removal, an industry that, according to MarketWatch, has grown 440 percent and taken in about $75.5 million in the last decade.
You must be highly motivated to remove a tattoo: It hurts worse than getting one, says the Los Angeles Daily News, writing about inmates at a Los Angeles County correctional facility who have tattoos erased. The Daily News said:
A laser produces a short pulse of intense light that passes through the top layers of skin and is absorbed by the tattoo pigment, causing the ink to fade over time.
“If you could imagine a razor that’s been heated up, placed at the end of a rubber band and then kind of shot at you, that seems to be the consensus of what it feels like,” [sheriff’s department officer Cynthia] Murphy said.
Pulsed lasers offer the most effective removal method. A variety of types are used, Dr. Allan Izikson, a dermatologist and researcher, told the American Academy of Dermatologists. He added:
“Results of the treatment will depend on a number of factors, including whether the tattoo was done by an amateur or professional (the latter is more difficult to remove), whether it is a new or an old tattoo, and the color and chemical composition of the ink. While the laser treatments can lighten tattoos significantly, some pigment is likely to remain.”
Some ink colors (blues and greens) are harder to remove. Light skin is easier to treat than dark skin, and tattoos are hardest to remove from hands and feet, Dr. Jim McMahan, a plastic surgeon in Columbus, Ohio, told Angie’s List.
Despite their drawbacks, lasers remain the best option. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration endorses them as safe and effective when used by a dermatologist who specializes in the procedure. (Tattooing safety falls under FDA jurisdiction because the inks are considered cosmetics. The FDA also regulates the lasers used in removals.)
Be realistic about the results you’ll get, advises the FDA. “Complete removal, with no scarring, is sometimes not possible.”