Now You Want to Remove That Tattoo? It Won’t Be Cheap

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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.

Stigma endures

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.

Lasers

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.”

Vet practitioners carefully

A wide variety of other services and products claim to remove tattoos. Some are simply ineffective; others can be dangerous.

States also regulate tattooing and tattoo-removal practitioners. Only California, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio and Florida require a medical degree for tattoo removal, says Angie’s List. Depending where you live, laser removal may be offered by dermatologists, plastic surgeons, aestheticians, cosmetologists and trained laser technicians.

The safest bet is using a licensed, board-certified dermatologist. Serious infections are among potential problems. Angie’s List’s screening tips include finding someone who:

  • Specializes in tattoo removal.
  • Has state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Is expertly trained.

Call your state government to ask which agency oversees tattoo-removal businesses. Ask whether a business is licensed and if it has a record of complaints. Also, do an Internet search on the business name and the practitioner’s name.

Report problems and bad reactions to the FDA’s MedWatch online or at 800-332-1088. Or contact an FDA consumer complaint coordinator.

The cost

Removing a tat can cost considerably more than getting one (and it’s unlikely your health insurance will cover it). A few examples:

  • The AAD article says erasing a small tattoo may cost a few hundred dollars. It could cost $1,000 or $2,000 to treat a larger one, especially if different types of lasers and many sessions are required.
  • Angie’s List says Dr. Elizabeth McBurney, dermatologist and clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, charges $300 to $600 per laser session, depending on the size and body location of the tattoo.
  • McMahan’s rate starts at $30 and runs to $1,200 for an entire arm, Angie’s List says.

Other approaches

  • On the horizon. Another American Academy of Dermatology article describes other, possibly more effective lasers under investigation.
  • Chemicals. The AAD, in “Caring for Tattooed Skin,” warns against acid treatments. Avoid kits offering chemical “peels” (online for as little as $12) and treatments using injectable chemical lotions, creams and liquids. These chemicals can cause long-term skin damage, experts tell Angie’s List.
  • Dermabrasion and surgery. Two more approaches include dermabrasion, which sands away a layer of skin, and surgery to remove the tattoo and sew up the incision. Both can leave ugly scars and hurt even worse than lasers, McBurney told Angie’s List.

A final option

Just maybe, if you can hang on, you’ll be able to will your tattoo to posterity, skin and all.

The Amsterdam tattoo shop Walls and Skin is home to a foundation that aims “to preserve tattooed skin after death” for exhibition and loaning to relatives of the deceased.

Complex magazine says the service starts around $375. The Guardian writes:More than 50 people have already signed up with the (shop’s) Foundation for the Art and Science of Tattooing, so that after their deaths, pathologists can remove the skin carrying their tattoo, pack it in formaldehyde and send it to a laboratory where the water and fat will be removed and replaced with silicone.”

Would you spend thousands to remove a tattoo? Could you endure the pain? Post a comment below or on Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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