Tattoo removal: Harder comng off than they are going on

If you think it hurt to get that butterfly tramp stamp, consider what it takes to remove it.

Over the past two decades, the emergence of laser technology in tattoo removal has increased the safety and reliability of the procedure. Laser removal has become the most common method since it can thoroughly erase tattoos of any size without leaving scars. However, this shouldn’t encourage people to start making rash decisions.

“It’s a big commitment financially and not a fast process,” said Jonathan Gardner, a laser specialist with more than 14 years experience in tattoo removal. “A standard black-ink tattoo could take two to three years to be successfully removed.”

Gardner, 37, is a co-owner of Southern Medical Lasers, a Columbia, SC-based company that rents industrial lasers to plastic surgery and dermatology practices across Georgia and the Carolinas. He drives around to more than 20 offices each month, often performing or assisting in the treatments.

The laser removes a tattoo by fragmenting the ink into microscopic pieces, which the body then absorbs. It’s a gradual process, however, making it rare for the tattoo to be fully removed after the first treatment. Patients typically wait two or three months after a treatment before the next, continuing the routine until the tattoo is gone. Black, red or dark blue tattoos are the easiest to erase, while the laser has extreme difficulty removing neon-colored ink.

“Each treatment takes just five to ten minutes, but therapy can last for years,” Gardner said.

With each treatment priced between $250 and $400, the total cost can accumulate quickly. Even still, it’s considered the gold standard of tattoo removal with good reason.

A more traditional method is to make an excision, which involves cutting out the tattoo with a surgical knife while the patient is under anesthesia. Excisions have size and location limitations, so they’re typically used to remove small sections, like a person’s name. The excision completely erases the tattoo in one treatment, but not without leaving a scar.

Another option, dermabrasion, involves rubbing the skin with a metal brush until it bleeds.

“I would never recommend the dermabrasion,” Gardner said. “It’s brutal and leads to bad scarring.”

The other alternative is a product called Wrecking Balm.

Available at Walmart for around $50, it’s the cheapest and most readily available option, but easily the most appalling, as well.

“They are asking the average Walmart customer to use an electric sander on their skin and then apply chemicals to it,” Gardner explained. “You can imagine what the outcome has been from that.

Patients are typically examined to determine if they’re eligible for laser treatment. Robin Jenkins, a nurse at the Barber Center for Plastic Surgery in Greensboro, mentioned several reasons why patients are deemed ineligible.

“You can’t have sun exposure in the area we’re treating,” Jenkins said. “I’ve had a few people who weren’t even healed and already wanted their tattoo off, but we require them to be fully healed before we start the process.”

Gardner cites professional women as his main demographic, but has performed on all types of people, from military applicants to ex-gang members. He’s removed tattoos from a variety of body parts and for a plethora of reasons.

“I’ve removed tattoos on every part of the body you could think of: Eyelids, inside the mouth, genitalia,” Gardner said.

Gardner feels rewarded from helping people, but also from relationships he’s developed with patients.

“When you see a person every other month for two to three years, you get to know them pretty well and vice versa,” he said.

Gardner makes no attempt to downplay the risks involved with tattoo removal.

“A patient needs to know that there’s potential for staph infection, changes in skin color and incomplete removal,” he said.