I got my tattoo of a sun emblazoned on my ankle at age twenty-one. After a few years, I was sick of looking at it; I felt like I’d been wearing the same pair of shoes day in and day out. I called about having it removed, something I assumed I would eventually do when I climbed into the tattoo artist’s chair.
The dermatology practice I consulted had some sobering news. First, tattoo removal is expensive. The cost varies depending on size and complexity. For my small but vibrant tattoo—that cost about $35— I was told to expect to pay $3,000 for removal.
The process is lengthy and can be painful. But here’s the worst part for me: certain light colors like yellow, pale green, and sky blue don’t respond well to laser treatment. Seeing as my randomly chosen tattoo is of a sun, it contains some yellow ink, as well as red, orange, and a black outline.
I decided to wait for the technology to advance and the price to come down. Recently, I called another dermatologist to get the current story. Keen scientific minds have brought about many advancements in science and technology, but sadly, tattoo removal is not one of them.
The Long, Painful Process
“Laser removal hasn’t changed,” Dr. Louis Cole, of Dermatology Specialists of North Atlanta, told me. Removal is still expensive and time-consuming. Results still vary, and yellow remains a difficult color to remove. “The lighter the color, the harder it is to remove,” he says. “With yellow, there is little for the laser to grab onto.”
Laser removal works by breaking up the ink into particles that are then removed by the blood stream. It’s a gradual process, with small, black tattoos taking three or four treatments and large, multi-colored tattoos taking up to fourteen treatments. Dr. Cole uses a laser with multiple wavelengths to attack various colors. “Gradually, the tattoo fades,” he says.
The process hurts, but a numbing ointment can take the edge off. More serious than the pain is the risk of scarring. People with African heritage are especially at risk and could end up with white patches.
In most states, a doctor’s supervision is required at any business that removes tattoos. But my state of Georgia and several others do not legally require a physician’s presence, Dr. Cole says. Anyone researching tattoo removal should make sure a doctor will perform the procedure or at least be on site to supervise.
Keeping a Sunny Disposition
Despite the cost and the risk of the procedure not yielding ideal results, people do it. Tattoo-unfriendly employers often drive customers into Dr. Cole’s office, as does a desire to join the military, which has restrictions on tattoos. Most customers are like me. They regard their tattoo as a youthful indiscretion and want it gone.
When researching tattoo removal, beware of anyone promising quick, easy results. “People need to understand it’s a process,” he says. “It’s not simple.”
The laser is the most popular method of tattoo removal. Some practices offer Intense Pulsed Light Therapy, or IPL, which may offer better results and less pain. But the cost is even higher than laser removal. Archaic methods such as sanding away the tattoo or cutting it out are too painful to consider.
Cream products that promise tattoo removal seem to work a little bit on some people and not at all on others, based on online product reviews. Dr. Cole says he has not reviewed any scientific literature on removal creams. He’s skeptical.
Another option is covering up a tattoo that has lost its charm with a fresh design. Find an artist who has a successful track record with cover-ups, and choose your design carefully so you won’t be right back researching removal options in a few years.
I ended up discovering a renewed appreciation for my tattoo. It’s a rare piece of evidence that I once had something of a wild streak. It’s also a reminder of a carefree time in my life.
My two-year-old daughter pointed to my ankle recently and asked, “What’s that?” I told her it was a sun, and she was satisfied. She may never know I also ran around for a while with a pierced naval. When I grew weary of it, I just had the ring removed. When it comes to youthful indiscretions, some are easier to erase than others.