Proceed with caution: Tattoo removal success rate varies, says study

Sept. 18, 2012, 4:10 p.m.

Tattoos that contain colors other than black or red and that are located on the feet or legs are particularly difficult to remove, say researchers. (damselfly58/Flickr Creative Commons)

R. Vega writes a lot of names for a living.

He's a tattoo artist at Simply Ink, a parlor on South San Pedro Street, just north of Adams Boulevard.

"Names are one of the most common tattoos people get," Vega said. "And they're also one of the most common things people get covered up."

With another tattoo, that is. Vega said when people, say, break up with the person whose name is on their bicep, they'll often get another design inked over it, rather than subject themselves to painful laser removal surgery. Vega says that hurts more than getting a tattoo.

"It hurts like crazy," he said. "It's like getting a sunburn in one specific area. It shoots a blast of light, and the light is so intense that it literally burns the skin and makes the ink of the tattoo break off into little particles." Sometimes it takes more than one laser session, depending on the darkness and color of the ink, but the tattoo will eventually fade into nothing.

Tattoo removal was the subject of a new Italian study which looked at removal success rates among 352 of the regretfully-inked.

First, researchers saw that around 47 percent of patients' tattoos were gone after 10 laser sessions. That percentage went up to nearly 75 after 15 sessions.

They also found it was harder to remove tattoos if they were:

– On the body of a smoker

– Colored in shades other than black or red

– Located on the feet or legs

– More than three years old

– Particularly dark

– Treated at intervals of eight weeks or less

So keep that in mind when you get that fuchsia-and-royal blue calligraphy lettering of your girlfriend of five month's name tattooed down your left calf.

When prospective customers come into Simply Ink, Vega has them search the Internet for patterns, themes, designs and drawings to get a sense of exactly what they want their tattoo to look like. That's "so they get what they want in one shot, and not regret anything later," he explained.

Tattoo removal surgery is no joke, he reminds us. "One single little star" will come off after a single laser session, he said, but someone who wants to make their tribal band go away is facing at least four painful sessions.

"And if the person performing the procedure doesn't know what they're doing, they can give you a third-degree burn if they're doing it wrong," said Vega.

All that is to say think twice about the tattoo you buy before going under the needle. Vega says names "look good on paper" – but to proceed with caution.

"'The mentality is 'I'll have my girlfriend or boyfriend for the next 50 years,'" he said. "Then they break up."

The study appeared in the Archives of Dermatology.

Photo by damselfly58 via Flickr Creative Commons.

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