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Tattoo remorse fuels boom for dermatologists

  • Story Highlights
  • American Academy of Dermatology: Tattoo regret common in the U.S.
  • Current tattoo removal process is painful, expensive, time-consuming
  • New, more easily removed tattoo ink scheduled to be available this fall
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By Judy Fortin
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Laura Hathaway initially had no regrets after getting a tattoo on her lower back when she was 21. But now, 10 years later, she wants it gone.

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Tattoo removal is more painful than the original tattoo, patient Laura Hathaway says.

The pharmaceutical sales representative from Atlanta, Georgia, says it doesn't fit in with her current lifestyle as the mother of a 2-year-old boy who just started to talk. "The other day I bent over and he said, 'What's that?' and it just confirms why I'm having it removed."

Dr. Scott Karempelis of Atlanta Dermatology Associates is performing a multitreatment laser procedure that will gradually erase Hathaway's tattoo with little or no scarring. The process is painful, expensive and time-consuming.

Karempelis says that in spite of the drawbacks, "business is booming." He and three other dermatologists in his office see more than 30 patients a day who want tattoos removed by laser. Video Watch Hathaway's tattoo beginning to disappear »

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The American Academy of Dermatology reports tattoo regret is common in the United States. Among a group of 18- to 50-year-olds surveyed in 2004, 24 percent reported having a tattoo and 17 percent of those considered getting their tattoo removed.

Karempelis uses a state-of-the-art laser that targets the pigment in the tattoo. "It goes through the skin without damaging it and hits the pigment depending on which wavelength and which color you have, and it blows it into small pieces."

The tattoo ink is then reabsorbed into the body through the lymphatic system. The process must be completed over several sessions in order to protect the skin from damage.

Hathaway expects to go through 10 sessions several weeks apart, each lasting less than a minute. She admits it's a lot more painful than getting the original tattoo. "It's prickly," describes Hathaway. "It feels like a bee is sitting on your back stinging time and time again. Afterwards, the pain does go away and you're a little sore for a few hours."

Patients with bigger tattoos are sometimes given the option to use a topical anesthetic, but Karempelis points out that it adds to the cost.

Like other dermatologists, he charges by the square inch for the laser treatment. By the time Hathaway's done, she expects to pay more than $2,200.

There's no guarantee that she won't have a scar. "Scarring is your major risk," says Karempelis. "Almost everyone gets a little bit of discoloration, a little lighter, a little darker for a while. But in most cases if you wait a year, you cannot see where it was done initially."

Certain tattoo colors, such as green, yellow and purple, are harder to remove, Karempelis says, especially for people with darker skin. Some parts of the body also pose a challenge. "The farthest away from the heart are hardest to treat, so the ankles are the toughest," Karempelis says.

He predicts his business will increase in the future, after a new type of tattoo ink hits the market. Freedom-2 is a microencapsulated dye. It's designed to be easily removed by a single laser treatment. "The laser would hit that pigment and it would completely dissolve immediately. ... You wouldn't need repetitive treatments," the doctor says.

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But until the ink becomes available, Karempelis expects to see a variety of patients going through long sessions to remove reminders of their past. He says the most popular tattoos to be removed in his office are the names of old boyfriends and former spouses.

In Hathaway's case, her tattoo of a flower didn't fit the image she wants to portray. She says she got the tattoo long before low-rise pants became popular. "It's just something I wanted to be private and now it's not." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Judy Fortin is a correspondent with CNN Medical News.

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