Smoking, Ink Color Affect Laser Tattoo Removal

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 21, 2012 -- Regret getting that Chinese character tattoo that turned out to be gibberish? Can't face turning 30 with the "Hello Kitty" tat you got on a whim a decade ago?

You're not alone.

Studies suggest that a third to half of people who get tattoos end up wanting them gone, and now laser technology makes it possible for those who can afford it. Maybe.

New research finds that the success of laser tattoo removal may depend on some surprising things, such as whether the unwanted ink is on the skin of a smoker.

Tattoo Removal Less Successful for Some

In one of the first studies to examine the issue, researchers in Italy identified key characteristics of successful tattoo removal.

They confirmed that large tattoos are harder to remove than small ones, and that yellow, blue, and green dyes are more resistant to removal than black and red ones.

Other characteristics associated with poorer results were less well-known, says study co-author and dermatologist Luigi Naldi, MD.

The study revealed that:

  • Smokers tended to have poorer results than non-smokers.
  • Older tattoos tended to be harder to remove than newer ones.
  • Tattoos on the feet and legs were harder to remove than those on other parts of the body.
  • Outcomes were better when laser sessions were spaced at least eight weeks apart.

"Some people want tattoos removed almost immediately after getting them and others want them removed years later when their lifestyles have changed," Naldi says.

Removing a Tattoo Will Cost You

Although removing an unwanted tattoo is possible, the process is neither quick nor cheap.

"I have people tell me all the time that they only spent around $100 for their tattoo, and I tell them it's going to cost a whole lot more to remove it," says dermatologist Amy Derick, MD, who performs 30 to 50 laser removals a month in her suburban Chicago practice.

She uses a device known as the Q-switched laser, which is more effective than other lasers at breaking up the ink in a tattoo so that it can be flushed away by the body's immune system.

Most tattoos take 10 to 12 sessions to remove, at $100 to $500 per session, she says.

Derick estimates the cost of the typical tattoo removal at $2,000 to $3,000.

Study Findings Surprising, Dermatologist Says

Derick says many findings in the study surprised her, including the fact that older tattoos are harder to remove than newer ones.

Naldi says this appears to be the case because over time the ink sinks deeper down into the skin and fat, where it is harder for the laser to reach.

He adds that smoking may hamper ink removal by inhibiting immune system function.

The study included 352 people who had their tattoos removed with the Q-switched laser.

In about half the cases, the tattoos were successfully removed after 10 sessions. Three times out of four, they were removed by session 15. Smoking lowered the chance of successful tattoo removal in 10 sessions by nearly 70%.

The study appears in the Archives of Dermatology.

Thirty-six percent of gen-nexters between the ages of 18 and 25 in the U.S. and 40% of gen-Xers, between the ages of 26 and 40 have tattoos, according to a Pew Research poll.

Derick says the majority of the removals she performs are on very conspicuous parts of the body, such as the face, neck, and hands.

Inked names and other tributes to long-lost loves and friends are among the most common targets for removal, as are topical tattoos and those that are badly executed, she says.

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SOURCES: Bencini, P.L., Archives of Dermatology, Sept. 17, 2012. Luigi Naldi, MD, dermatology unit, Ospedali Riuniti di Bergamo, Bergamo, Italy. Amy Derick, dermatologist, suburban Chicago. Pew Research Center, tattoo statistics.

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