RealSelf Exclusive: Tattoo Removal Is on the Rise — Here’s Why That Matters
Posted by Elisabeth Kramer on Nov 9th, 2015
Somewhere in California there’s a 300-pound, former college football player with “white boy” tattooed across his chest. The man — let’s call him Steve — got the tattoo from one of his friends. The only Caucasian in his group, Steve thought it fitting at the time.
Then he joined the military where racially charged tattoos aren’t allowed. Steve had to act fast. He found a professional tattoo artist to bookend his homemade creation with two ds. What do you get when you add two ds to “white boy”? The birth of a guy named Dwhite Boyd.
Never mind the unusual spelling, Steve told the military. Dwhite’s a friend who died in high school. This ink is in his honor.
One in five American adults has a tattoo; that number’s even higher — 1 in 3 — for millennials. Of course, as more people get tattoos, more people regret them. On RealSelf, the world’s largest community for learning and sharing information about elective cosmetic procedures, interest in tattoo removal has risen 30% in the past six months alone.
“Tattoo removal isn’t a cultural phenomenon; it’s mainstream now,” says dermatologist Dr. Kean B. Lawlor. “When I originally started performing tattoo removal in the mid-1990s, biker tattoos and [military] service tattoos were the bulk of the business. By and large it was male.”
These days, he says, mostly young women seek out tattoo removal. They often regret something they got in their early 20s and yes, what you’re thinking is right. Sixty-four percent of RealSelf doctors say the lower back — home of the so-called “tramp stamp” — is the most popular spot for tattoo removal.
What might have been an impulse buy isn’t easy to undo. Excision, or physically cutting out a tattoo, comes with all the trappings of minor surgery while laser tattoo removal is, as one doctor put it, like breaking up a boulder.
“You’re trying to bust up that boulder into small itty-bitty rocks so that they can slowly be absorbed by your body,” says dermatologist Dr. Chad M. Hivnor. “You have to find the specific wavelength of light that will be absorbed by that particular color rock.”
New technology harnesses different wavelengths — the picosecond (one trillionth of a second) rather than the traditional nanosecond (one billionth of a second). That’s led to more effective treatments thanks to tattoo removal devices like PicoWay.
“[With pico technology] the wavelength of light is going in faster and breaking that boulder into smaller and smaller pieces,” says Dr. Hivnor. “Your body can do a much better job gobbling up dust than pebbles or rocks.”
Pico devices can cut treatment times in half, but tattoo removal is still expensive (often thousands of dollars) and painful (like hot bacon grease popping against the skin). Plus, there’s no guarantee the ink will be gone for good. Some tattoo removals leave behind a shadow or “ghost” of the original marking.
Despite all of this, over 89% of people who’ve had a tattoo removed said they’d do it again. Many see the procedure as the symbolic start of a new life.
“I was never so sad and so depressed over anything in my life,” says one woman of her bad tattoos. “You feel guilty because you say, ‘This is something I did to myself. There are people dying of cancer. Don’t be so silly.’ But it’s REAL.”
William Hughes can relate. For nine years, “Cynthia’s Daddy” covered the right side of his neck; it was a tribute to his then-girlfriend. When the relationship didn’t last, he added musical notes and his son’s initials since, he explains, “I’m actually his daddy.”
He thought the cover-up would work, but it made the tattoo larger and harder to hide. “It would have been different if it was really artful,” he says. Instead, “It looked like ‘You got that in jail.’”
William says it held him back. He’d apply for a job and go through several rounds of phone interviews only to meet face-to-face and see his potential employer’s entire demeanor shift. “It’s just a body language thing,” he says. “They’d get an expression almost like, ‘Oh, OK. Well, we do have some other candidates.’”
He’d given up on getting an office job when his fiancée (now wife) heard about a radio contest for his city’s worst tattoo. The prize: free tattoo removal.
When he found out he won, William couldn’t believe it. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Out of everyone, you guys chose me?”
Before the contest, two factors kept William from getting his tattoo removed. First, the price. “I had a bunch of other stuff I could do with five, six thousand dollars,” he says. “I just didn’t see it in my future.”
Second, the number of people claiming they could help. “It was hard to know who was real,” he says. “It seemed kinda scary.”
It is scary, particularly if you hear the horror stories so often told about tattoo removal. Just a few months ago, a young man visited Debbie Caddell’s laser clinic after a doctor’s appointment gone wrong.
“He had bled through his bandages and through his sweater,” says Debbie, who’s been a master esthetician and laser specialist for 13 years. “You should never bleed like that. That tells me that the office probably had four hours of training from the [laser] manufacturer, and now they’re on their own.”
While not common, instances like this one are stark reminders that regulations for tattoo removal are anything but clear. They vary state to state with information notoriously hard to find online (the map below features data from Debbie’s alma mater, Rocky Mountain Laser College).
Typically, a laser tattoo removal will be done either by a doctor (a dermatologist such as Dr. Lawlor) or a non-medical professional (often an esthetician like Debbie). In some states, a non-medical professional may fire the laser but only if a certified doctor is on location or, in some cases, in the same general area (how “general area” is defined varies by state).
Both groups — doctors and non-medical professionals — have their own opinions about what’s best.
Doctors point to medical training and residencies as proof that they’re qualified. Estheticians, meanwhile, say doctors don’t even do the tattoo removals themselves, instead handing the lucrative, if monotonous, work off to a non-medical staff member who may or may not be well-trained.
Where does this leave patients?
“It’s a medical procedure, and it’s like any medical procedure: experience matters,” says Dr. Lawlor. “People come to us because they understand that we know what we’re doing, and they probably feel at least implicitly that if something were to go wrong, they’re in the best hands with us because skin is our business.”
Debbie agrees, but cautions that “just because they’re a doctor doesn’t mean they’re an expert with lasers. They may just have the money to purchase the laser, and they prefer to hire technicians to fire it.”
That puts the onus on patients to ask tough questions.
“You want to make sure that they have vast experience,” says Dr. Hivnor on how to pick who removes a tattoo. “You want to make sure that they’re upfront and honest with you about how many they’ve done, how long they’ve been doing it, and how long they’ve been in dermatology.… The more knowledge you have on what their experience is, the better decision you’re going to make.”
“Most people are completely fascinated when they find out I had a tattoo,” he says. “They didn’t even know it was possible to remove one this well.”
William credits his new look with landing him his white-collar job in IT. “I feel different, like I’m competitive,” he says. “Getting the tattoo removed was probably the best thing I’ve ever done.”
So whatever happened to Dwhite Boyd? After Steve left the service, he decided he’d had enough of the lie. He found his way to Dr. Cameron Chesnut and asked to have the two ds removed.
White boy should stay, Steve told Dr. Chesnut. That part stood for a particular time and place that mattered. What Steve wanted gone wasn’t his past but how bad covering it up had made him feel.