A User’s Guide to Tattoo Removal

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One in seven Americans has a tattoo. That's 41 million fluttering butterflies, tribal armbands, and Chinese letters. It also includes countless statements of unenduring love or of previous lines of work (like the accused Gambino hit man's rats get fat while good men die). Some people live with these glum glyphs; others grow up and find themselves in boardrooms on Monday, wishing they could do something about that purple gecko around their neck.

Today they can. For people willing to invest the time and money, current laser removal technology is offering a do-over for one of the last things in life you weren't supposed to be able to live down. A small to medium-size tattoo can cost anywhere from $1,300 to $5,000 to erase and require between three and 15 visits parceled out over many months. At least the procedure is nearly painless, especially when compared with its predecessors. Dermabrasion, for instance, entailed essentially wiping the tattoo off with a type of surgical sandpaper, and even the lasers used just five years ago frequently left white splotches where dragons or dogs once lay.

The Q-Switch laser, by contrast, explodes the pigment into the bloodstream, where it's absorbed and drifts harmlessly away – for the most part. "A small percentage of patients have brief allergic reactions," says Tulane University dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth McBurney, one of the country's leading removal authorities. McBurney also notes that the Q-Switch still struggles with the more stubborn pigments, such as yellow, orange, and green. And one very preliminary study in Germany suggests that a small amount of a carcinogen may be released into the blood during the bursting. But did you really expect the tattoo to give up without a fight?


On my right ankle is a self-inflicted tattoo I gave myself in my dorm room during my hippie-dippy freshman year. It's a crude rendition of the Hindu om character, which apparently symbolizes "everything" – I'm not sure, since I know nothing about Eastern religion. And over the years it's become increasingly tiresome pretending I do. So I call Manhattan dermatologist, and busy removal man, Dr. Jim Baral.

In the waiting room I meet Jeff, a 30-year-old bruiser from Queens who recently entered the corporate world. Jeff is sleeved with ink from his neck to his knuckles, and God knows where else. But here he is, waiting to have a smudged horseshoe removed from his middle finger. "Patients come to me for many reasons," Dr. Baral explains. "Sometimes their lifestyle has changed, or they have different career goals; someone wants to be a model, maybe. Also, you'd be surprised how many people are sent to me by the navy to have tattoos removed from their necks." (Military regulations forbid body art visible above the uniform collar.)

When I sit in the procedure chair I recline as though in a Barcalounger and rest my inked ankle on my knee. Dr. Baral numbs the skin with an anesthetic, hunches over the ankle with the laser, which makes a crackling sound, and six seconds later he's done. A few days after my first procedure I give my "exploded" om a close inspection. Dr. Baral says it will take a month for the ink to dissipate completely, but already the sharp lines are a few degrees fainter. A shallow wave of nostalgia washes over me. But then I remember I can always get another tattoo, and if I regret that one, I can always go back under the laser beam. finding a removal man

Given the demand for tattoo removal, any dermatologist worth his degree should at least be able to make a referral. Still, if you want more information (too bad you weren't this cautious when you had the tattoo done, huh?) see the American Academy of Dermatology's database on laser procedures. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery also runs a nationwide directory of doctors who specialize in removal.