by April Armstrong, M.D., ABC News Medical Unit
Thinking about removing that tattoo of your ex-girlfriend's name from your arm?
While lovers come and go, tattoos are intended to be permanent. But as more consumers get tattoos, there are also more people eager to get rid of them.
Roughly one in four adult Americans has at least one tattoo -- and 17 percent are considering getting rid of theirs, according to a survey published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Now, one company has found a way to make tattoo inks that, while still permanent, are also easily removed. The company, Freedom-2 LLC, will make the special ink available next year.
This new type of ink is injected into the skin in the same way as conventional tattoo inks. However, it is only permanent in the skin until the owner changes his or her mind. With a single pass of a laser, tattoos composed of this special ink can be safely and fully removed.
The new technology is the result of a combined effort by a team of scientists from Harvard Medical School and Duke University.
Removal of Conventional Tattoos Time-Consuming and Costly
Conventional tattoos are typically removed with laser technology. However, laser treatments are costly and time-consuming, and complete removal is sometimes not possible.
"Conventional tattoo removal takes multiple visits," said Dr. Charles Taylor, director of Khosrow Momtaz Phototherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Professional tattoo artists use heavy metals in their tattoo inks. For example, blacks have iron, blues have cobalt. Heavy metals are fairly resistant to current laser technology."
And certain characteristics of the tattoo can also affect how difficult removal will be. Dr. Sandy Tsao, associate program director for procedural dermatology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said the type of ink that is used, along with the age of the tattoo and the skill level of the artist involved, can play an important role.
"These three factors determine how many treatments the patient will require and the eventual cost," Tsao said. "On average, a professional tattoo requires about eight to ten sessions, spaced six to eight weeks apart. The average cost per treatment ranges from $250 to $400."
This means the tattoo that might have cost you a couple of hundred bucks to get will require a few thousand dollars to remove.
Aside from the time and money required for conventional tattoo removal, there are a number of well-known risks associated with the laser tattoo removal procedure itself.
"The treatments can be painful, and they generally require a topical anesthetic," said Tsao.
During the period immediately following laser tattoo removal, some of the expected side effects include scabbing and crusting, which can last between a week and ten days, Tsao said.
"The biggest risk is having a permanent loss of your normal pigmentation, almost similar to having a negative impression of the tattoo image on the skin," she said. "Tattoo removal can also lead to scar formation, sometimes.
"There is an increased possibility of scarring if the tattoo is located on the ankle or the upper back because these are scar-prone areas."
'Smart Pigment' Allows for Targeted Destruction
Unlike the conventional counterparts, the company says that its new ink is specifically designed to be removed by a laser.
The dyes come "packaged" in tiny beads called polymer microspheres. The beads are made of a material commonly used in the body in plastic and orthopedic surgery.
Each of these tiny beads contains a "target" pigment. When this target is hit by a laser, it explodes, rupturing the entire bead. The body will then absorb the nano-sized pigment particles and remnants of the beads, leaving no visible evidence of the tattoo behind.
"With this new tattoo ink, you have safety, reliability and removability," said Dr. Eric Bernstein, a member of the scientific advisory board of Freedom-2 and an associate professor of dermatology at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Removal of Freedom-2 tattoos should take only one session, and it costs about one-tenth of that of conventional tattoo removal."
The first of these removable inks will hit the market in 2007. Initially, only black will be available, but developers say blue, red and yellow inks will not be far behind.
New Ink Offers Safe Option
The creators of the ink say it was developed with safety in mind. This could figure in big, as the tattoo industry in the United States is not regulated by any federal governing body and each state draws up its own guidelines on how to ensure consumer safety.
"In today's world, there's no regulation," Bernstein said. "You buy the tattoo ink, and you don't even know what's in it.
"It's completely unacceptable that [the tattoo ink] is something that is put in the body and we don't know what's in it."
Bernstein said some conventional tattoo inks contain toxic substances. The new tattoo ink, he said, is made of safe, biodegradable dyes.
"With more and more sophisticated consumers, they want to ask about whether a tattoo is sterile and safe," he said.
Removable Tattoo Ink Will Likely Appeal to Consumers
Safety aside, the new ink could be in high demand by those who wish to keep their options open. Some say it could even encourage consumers who previously may have never thought about getting body art to take a trip to the tattoo parlor.
"I am all for the development of tattoo ink particles that are long lasting in the skin, and the moment patients decide to have them removed, they can be removed immediately," Taylor said.
"Tattooing is a real art," said Tsao. "People change depending on their life circumstances and want to have the freedom to have tattoos removed. So it's appealing to have a tattoo ink that can be more easily removed."
"When people get tattoos now, they can't get into the military or get jobs," said Bernstein. "When you are young, you don't think about stuff like that. I'd be shocked if most of the people getting tattoos would not ask for removal tattoos.
"It's nice to be able to express yourself, do something wild and crazy and have the ability to undo it."