Tattoo removal is not a new invention. In fact, it has been practiced for centuries. At one time, treatments consisted of applications of urea with acetic acid. These took the form of applying either pigeon poo mixed with vinegar or chamber pot scum mixed with vinegar. Cantharidin (Spanish fly), a skin irritant, mixed with sulfur and oil was also used.
A treatment used during the Fourth Century begins with the application of saltpeter and turpentine directly to the tattoo, followed a week later by pricking or scrubbing the area with salt. This is followed by reapplication of the saltpeter and turpentine mix, which then sits on the tattoo for 20 days. Ouch.
Centuries Later, Tattoo Removal is Still a Grating Experience
Any success achieved by any of these methods was obtained by irritating and then abrading the skin. This produced prolonged inflammation that encouraged the pigment to migrate to the surface. Scarring and skin discoloration of the skin were quite common, and removal of the tattoo was usually incomplete. As time went on, pharmaceuticals and instruments became more sophisticated. But, until lasers came into use during the 1990’s, all tattoo removal techniques were more or less improvements on and variations of the abrasion/inflammation method of yore. Dermabrasion, for example, uses either chemical agents (such as caustic acids or salt) or sandpaper to remove layers of skin, right down to, and including, that layer which contains the tattoo pigment. This method has limited success because tattoo ink is often implanted very deep in the skin, and a dermatologist can go only so far in removing skin before he begins actually flaying the patient. As is understandable, dermabrasion can cause severe and traumatic permanent scarring that may be worse than the original tattoo.
During a related process known as microdermabrasion, layers of skin are sand-blasted away. It seems to be no more successful or any less painful than dermabrasion. Glycolic peels, while effective in rejuvenating skin, burn off only the top layer with glycolic acid, and doesn’t go deep enough to eliminate tattoos.
Current Methods of Tattoo Removal
Slicing and Dicing:
Small tattoos may be surgically removed by staged excision; the surgeon cuts out the tattoo a section at a time. Permanent scarring results and the technique does not work well on “home-made” tattoos where the ink has typically been injected deeper into the skin than professional tattoos. (Laser surgery works with “home-made” tattoos because the ink used is impermanent and breaks up easily.) Larger tattoos may be surgically removed through a technique called tissue expansion. A balloon is placed under the flesh and inflated. Over a period of time, the skin slowly stretches, and the tattoo is cut out. The stretched skin is pulled over the excised area, and suturing leaves only a slight, linear scar.
Laser Tattoo Removal:
“Dissolving” a tattoo with a laser is currently the method of choice even though it requires months and possibly even years of sessions spaced three or four weeks apart and seldom removes all of the pigment. The principle behind the process is that the tattoo pigment absorbs the intense pulses of laser light which then cracks the pigment into smaller pieces. These pieces are more readily attacked and destroyed by the body’s own defenses.
There is never a guarantee that a tattoo can be removed completely with a laser. Success depends upon the size of the tattoo, how old it is, what pigments were used, your immune system, and a myriad of other factors. Colors like turquoise, light green, and yellow require more treatments than black ink, and when white (titanium oxide) has been used, the customer has to wait for it to fade before the laser can be applied; fading could take up to 10 years from the time the tattoo was created.
Tattoo Removal Costs: When it Really Starts to Hurt
While the laser treatment is not as bad as the getting poked with that tattoo needle, a greater pain comes with the medical bill you’ll get. Removal of cosmetic tattoos is not covered by insurance, and the bill will probably be a minimum of $1,000. The maximum is equivalent to something like a new car, depending upon where you live and how complex the removal process is.
In some areas, there are programs that will provide teenagers free gang tattoo laser removal.
Yes, tattoos are a pain to get rid of. Why? For the same reason you got that tattoo in the first place instead of using a decal – you wanted something permanent.