Tattoos: a form of self-expression (that you’re 50% likely to regret)

Whilst perusing the Daily Mail on-line over coffee the other morning, I came across this rather arresting image of the heavily tatto’ed Mr Victoria Beckham in his pants and I couldn’t help but wonder how he will feel about them in his 50s? Tattoos are increasingly common-some studies report their prevalence as high as 25% in the 18-50 age group in the US. Perhaps somewhat perplexingly, recent studies cite  that some of the commonest reasons for having one was that the individual “just wanted one” or ‘just for the hell of it”. Equally, “being part of the group” was a common motivating factor. The difficulty lies in that the decision to get one leads to a procedure that takes a matter of minutes-but the undoing can take months….and months….and the better the tattoo, the longer it can take. Assuming that the whole thing is actually amenable to removal. And it can be painful and invariably expensive. So David may need to free up some time down the line, if he ever changes his mind…and according to statistics those who are married are more likely to regret getting a tattoo.

From a dermatologist’s perspective, tattoo removal can be a challenge. Historically the methods for removal involved dermabrasion, destruction with caustic materials and cryosurgery, which all lead to scarring-but the advent of a special type of laser called a q-switch laser has revolutionised tattoo removal.  The laser light enters the skin so that it quickly destroys the ink while minimising destruction of the surrounding tissue. This process is called selective photothermolysis. The laser light destroys the ink, and the body breaks it down. The surrounding skin stays intact with relatively  few unwanted side effects. However its important to note that not all tattoos can be completely removed, no matter how many treatments are performed. Here are some important facts to bear in mind:

1) More treatments are likely to be needed if: the tattoo is on an extremity, you have a dark skin type, the tattoo contains multiple inks and a large quantity of ink or the area was previously scarred. Black/blue tattoos are the easiest to remove-green, purple and yellow are much more difficult and different types of laser will be needed to tackle these colours.

2) Leave at least 8 weeks between treatments.

3) Cosmetic tattoos need to be treated with utmost care-these can contain pigments which are flesh-coloured and may paradoxically darken when treated, due to oxidation of the pigment. Test spots are incredibly important.

4) Its important to take care of the skin at the tattoo removal site between treatments-skin should be kept clean and inflammation should be tackled with elevation (particularly of the extremities) and moist wound healing. Leave blisters alone and use a topical steroid cream as directed by your dermatologist. Sun-screen is a must.

In the future, we are likely to see tattoos that respond better to laser removal; micro-encapsulated inks which are designed to be easily removed by a single laser are  in the pipe-line. Whether the highly-unregulated tattoo industry embraces these innovations remains to be seen. In the meantime, think long and hard before going under the needle.

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