UW News

October 25, 2007

UW dermatologists ‘zap’ unwanted skin art

If you are determined to get a tattoo, Dr. Dan Berg has some advice for you:

  • Ask yourself: How will I feel about this in 10 years?
  • Keep it small.
  • Limit the ink colors to black and dark blue, which are the easiest to remove.
  • Leave out the names, whether people or bands.
  • Have the tattoo placed on a part of your body usually covered by clothes.

As director of UW Medical Center’s Dermatologic Surgery Center, Berg consults with, and is often able to help, people who no longer want the tattoos they acquired when they were younger.

“Except for very small tattoos that can be surgically excised, leaving a small scar, tattoo removal is really a misnomer,” he says. “Using a laser, some tattoos can be removed without a trace, but patients need to be aware that significant lightening may be the best end-result possible. The lasers are excellent tools, and we can usually lighten a tattoo considerably by breaking up the ink with laser treatment. However, some of the image may still be there, a little like a shadow of its former self.”

For many people, that may be enough to make the process of several laser treatments worth the clinic visits and the cost. For others, without a guarantee of complete removal, it’s not enough.

Because tattoo removal or lightening is usually considered cosmetic surgery, patients who want treatment will need to pay themselves.

In people with dark skin, the process is the same, but there may be some lightening in the area where the laser is used. This is usually temporary, since the skin will replace its own pigment.

Berg uses a Q-switched YAG laser system for work on tattoos. It is a compact system and offers the latest technology, although he notes that lasers have been the primary treatment for tattoos for the past 15 years. The laser works by focusing energy on the ink pigment and breaking it up. Black and dark blue ink are easiest to remove with the laser; green tends to be the most difficult color.

Dermatologists divide tattoos into two basic categories: amateur and professional. The amateur tattoos are usually easiest to remove, he says, because they don’t have multi-colored inks and are usually smaller.

Berg, who is also professor of medicine in the Division of Dermatology, says that many patients who got tattoos when they were younger now find them a handicap in the job market. In one recent case, he was working with a young man, who had an armful of tattoos, to clear just a strip around the wrist so that he could wear a long-sleeved shirt without displaying tattoos. “I used to be a rebel,” the patient said, “but now I want a good job.”

Other people find the content, rather than the extent, of a tattoo becomes a problem. If a name or initials are small enough, it might be possible to cut out that part while leaving the rest of the tattoo. In most cases, the laser can help remove or significantly lighten names or words, Berg says. In some cases, patients may choose to have that area tattooed over with more ink.

If you do end up with a tattoo you no longer want, it will take more time and cost more to have it lightened or removed than it did to get it. So, as Berg suggests, “Think ahead.”