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How are tattoos removed?

Dermatologist Joshua L. Fox, director of the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery in New York, explains.

More people than ever are getting tattoos today and estimates for the U.S. population indicate that approximately 3 percent now have tattoos. A quick look at any professional basketball game reveals that more than half the players have body art. Getting a tattoo has never been safer, primarily because of the use of disposable needles, but people with tattoos and those considering getting one should still remain mindful of the possibility that someday they may no longer want it. Industry experts say that 50 percent of people with tattoos will someday consider having them removed.

The good news is that patients have more options now than ever before when it comes to removing tattoos. New techniques in lasers have improved results, reduced the risks and broadened the spectrum of patients who can benefit from this technology. Selecting a dermatologist to remove a tattoo is a serious decision. Patients should try to find a specialist with experience and equipment specific for tattoo removal. Good questions to ask of a potential doctor include how many tattoo removal procedures they have done and whether they own their lasers or lease them. Doctors that own their lasers typically do more tattoo removal and as such have more practical experience.

There are currently three types of lasers available for tattoo removal: Alexandrite, YAG and Ruby. Each works on different pigment colors and compounds, so the dermatologist will use one or a combination of lasers depending on the nature of a specific tattoo. It follows that you would want to select a dermatologist that has the specific laser necessary for removing your tattoo. A tattoo's pigment has been inserted into the dermal layer of the skin through ruptures in the skin's top layer, or epidermis. In very short pulses, the laser light is selectively absorbed by the color of the tattoo ink. This high energy causes the tattoo ink to fragment into smaller pigment particles that are then removed by the body's immune system. Whether it's a tiny fish on an ankle or a large design covering half of the back, in most cases laser treatments can remove up to 90 to 95 percent of a tattoo, although multiple sessions will most likely be necessary.

It is possible that tattoo removal treatment could bring out a latent herpes infection so a patient must alert his dermatologist if he has a herpes infection in the area of the tattoo. In some cases where herpes is involved the doctor will prescribe a preventative antibiotic prior to the tattoo removal procedure. Additionally, it is advised that patients don't go into the sun prior to having a tattoo removed because skin burnt from the sun reacts more strongly to laser treatment.

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