Think before you ink - the pain of tattoo regret

Think before you ink. Photo / Thinkstock
Think before you ink. Photo / Thinkstock

Let's say you are living in the moment, feelling giddy - a little tipsy, maybe - and you decide to get that tattoo.

Dr Suzanne Kilmer has a warning for you: Think twice before acting. Not only do you face five times the risk of contracting hepatitis C, chances are you'll change your mind about whether you like your tattoo before you reach middle age.

Kilmer, 55, a clinical professor at University of California, has seen tattoo-regret galore.

"Most people come in and say, it was something I did while I was young, and I've outgrown it,"' Dr Kilmer said.

The founder of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center in Northern California, says she's removed more than 20,000 inky images.

That's no small accomplishment, and Dr Kilmer is no ordinary dermatologist. She's a world-renowned, pre-eminent expert in the field of laser tattoo removal and laser skin care.

To this day, Harvard University mentors who first worked with Dr Kilmer as a fellow in the 1990s describe her as a pioneer in tattoo removal - and a force who has helped chart the future of the field.

"She actually had a hand in the very early development of lasers for tattoo removal," said Dr R Rox Anderson, professor of dermatology at Harvard.

Dr Kilmer also is known for creating a world-class laser centre that does groundbreaking research for US Food and Drug Administration clinical trials and as the only woman to have headed the American Society for Lasers in Surgery and Medicine.

But in the realm of tattoo removal, Dr Kilmer's work has opened up possibilities for better and faster results - key in a nation filled with people obsessed with etching on their outermost organ.

Removal is difficult, lengthy and painful. Think hot bacon grease spattered on the skin. Think the sting of a stretched rubber band smacking you from up close. Imagine paying thousands of dollars for the multiple appointments to obliterate a tattoo.

People have no idea how hard it is to get it off, Dr Kilmer said.

Among those who find themselves at her clinic are job seekers, career professionals and parents of young kids who want to erase stigma, Dr Kilmer said. There are former gang members and people with what's termed "traumatic tattoos" identifying them, for example, as former prisoners of war.

Brittany Costarella, 38, was in the laser chair trying to rid her midriff of a winged, haloed red heart. It wasn't her first time there.

"Oh, my gosh, if people knew how painful it is to get it off," Costarella said.

"It feels like piercing hot oil. Not a hot oil droplet, but deep heat under the skin."

Lasers deliver hot, powerful pulses through the upper skin to a deeper layer where a tattoo artist has embedded pigment.

When the laser beam hits a particle of ink, its force fractures the pigment. Immune system cells then move in to clean up the mayhem, which the body's lymphatic system clears away.

Some tattoos leave "ghosts" behind that simply will never disappear even after several rounds of the laser beam.

Melissa Leal, 30, a doctoral student in Native American studies, just underwent her ninth removal appointment.

As Leal's hand was zapped, she looked away, grimaced and practiced deep breathing.

"What she's feeling is the heat breaking up the ink dye," Dr Kilmer said.

"Usually, if it hurts, it means it's working."

Even under Dr Kilmer's supervision, tattoo removal can be a challenge. For each tattoo, each patient is diagnosed, charted, treated, educated and observed with the utmost attention to skin type and pigment of tattoo ink.


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