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The Doctor's Corner: Love your tattoo? Make sure you do

September 10, 2013|Dr. Jane K. Bening

Ouch! Yeoww! Sizzle ... Yikes! Eeeck! Whiff … Dang! Why did I ever think I wanted that tat there forever?

Tattoo removal is a sort of oxymoron, an expression of opposite concepts. Taking the plunge into inking one's skin has something in common with marriage, parenthood, tubal ligation and vasectomy. One should never make these pivotal life choices thinking it's "no big deal" to change one's mind and reverse the decision.

I couldn't help but notice the black nylon sleeve worn by a waiter one sizzling afternoon at a beachfront restaurant patio in Laguna, apparently covering a tattoo-laden arm. With our recent sweltering heat, I suspect many tattoo cover-ups added to the discomfort of folks with illustrated skin.

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At the pleasant office of Newport Dermatology & Laser Associates in Newport Plaza at Fashion Island, I was welcomed for a journalistic field trip to observe a tattoo-removal laser treatment. A laser nurse specialist deftly wielded the beam toward two tiny, unobtrusive tats, now unwelcome on the creamy, otherwise pristine skin of a wincing patient.

The practitioners emphasized that a tattoo is rarely removed completely. In many cases, the skin is left with a discoloration, sort of a white shadow. Topical numbing can be applied to reduce any discomfort. In addition, local anesthesia can be injected to make the laser session less uncomfortable, although administration can be painful and may add to the expense.

Tattoo removal seems to be a growing industry. A glossy brochure with a gift card from a place in Beverly Hills showed up at my medical office. No matter how expert the tat zappers, you are paying someone to burn your skin over and over, with no guarantee of how many treatments are required, how much pain you will endure, what it will finally cost or what will be the ultimate result.

What you get depends, in part, on your skin type. Darker skin can require more treatments. Colors, such as red, orange, yellow and green, are the hardest to erase. Amateur tattoos, put on by buddies, are generally easier to shed but may not be etched with much expertise. Unless universal precautions with needles, other equipment and ink are observed, any tattoo can be a source of hepatitis C or even HIV.

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