By Sarah Matthews
When you were 17, the thought of having an enormous heart with the words "I Love Amy's Squishy Fat Boobs & Butt" tattooed underneath in the middle of your right forearm seemed like a fantastic idea. But now that you're 35 and about to get married to - surprise - someone who's skinny and whose name isn't Amy, the idea doesn't sound as great as it once did.
While more and more people are having tattoos - it's estimated that at least 10 million Americans flaunt them - more and more people are also desperately trying to get rid of them. And these days, whether you're about to start a conservative new job, marry a tattoo-hater or simply because your tastes have changed, getting rid of that old tattoo isn't as difficult as you might think.
While the results are not always 100 percent, most people are happy that they opted for removal after the end result has completely healed. So what have you got to lose - expect an enormous Def Leppard scrawled in Celtic script above a skull-and-crossbones on your lower back?
What is a Tattoo?
Tattoos are one way in which we humans seek - or sought - to beautify ourselves. They are simply markings on the skin made with indelible ink once the top layer of the dermis is broken open, or ruptured. Time was when all tattoos were put on with needles; these days, an electric machine is often used.
Tattoos have been around for - literally - thousands of years, dating all the way back to a 5,200-year-old completely frozen mummy dubbed The Iceman. While many people think of prison affiliations, sailors, gangs and hippies when they think of tattoos, some cultures still use them today as an important affiliation tool, such as the Ta Moko Maori facial and body tattoos.
Whether or not a tattoo can be taken off completely depends on a variety of factors, including how big the tattoo is, what type and color of pigment was used, the professionalism of the person who made it, the age of the tattoo and the individual's natural skin color.
Types of Tattoo Removal
Three types of tattoo removal are most commonly used. They are:
* Surgical Excision * Dermabrasion * Laser Tattoo Removal
Surgical Excision. This type used to be the most common, and is still used in cases where the tattoo appears difficult to remove, or will work best being surgically removed by a medical professional. Your surgeon will cut off the offending pattern, then sew up the wound with stitches.
In areas where the tattoo is very large, a skin graft from another part of the body will be used. There will be scarring and, of course, the risk of infection will be greater. However, if the tattoo is relatively small, many people say this is the best method to use as the results are best.
Dermabrasion. Sounds perhaps more painful than it actually is. Usually it works by a special hand-held device, which makes the top and middle layers of the skin "sanded" away, revealing clean, unblemished skin in its place. Sometimes caustic acid, sandpaper or salt (called salabrasion) is used instead (don't try this at home!). Not recommended for older tattoos, facial tattoos and non-professional tattoos.
The disadvantages of this technique is that it may result in more scarring, be more painful and could cause skin discoloration or infection, which can impede healing and affect the end result. However, it is cheaper than the laser method (see below) and can work well with professional tats - this is because the professional tattoo artist will have (hopefully) distributed the pigment used evenly.
Laser Tattoo Removal. Most commonly used technique today. The pigments in the tattoo are targeted using high-intensity laser beams. The laser will "disturb" the ink and it will eventually be broken down and absorbed harmlessly by the body. People say that the procedure is not entirely painless, but that it feels like a series of elastic bands snapping a bit unpleasantly on your skin.
Depending on the tattoo etc, multiple treatments may be necessary for most effective results. People with better immune systems and lighter skin tones will respond best, as will red, black, dark blue and dark orange tattoos. The tattoo's depth and type of ink, not just the color, will also play a role in the removal outcome.
*Please note that some companies also advertise IPL, or Intense Pulsed Light, systems to remove tattoos. They are touted as being more gentle, but there is no scientific evidence as such to state whether or not such a system works. Similarly, "soft" Q-switched YAG lasers are also sometimes used, but professionals in the field say that high powers are needed to proper effect, so these too should be avoided.