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Tattoo removal an option when 'forever' is over

The Baltimore Sun

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Kelly Brannigan was suffering from a case of tattoo remorse.

Just a year ago, Brannigan, 24, who holds up Case No. 24 as one of the models on the NBC game show Deal or No Deal, had been full of hope when she and her fiance had each other's names tattooed across their inner wrists.

But now, when she looks at the letters - P-A-T-R-I-C-K - she is reminded of a failed relationship.

For help, she turned to Dr. Tattoff, a chain of tattoo-removal stores where nurses use lasers in a series of treatments to break down tattoo pigments. Dr. Tattoff is part of a growing industry catering to people who might not have thought about the implications of "forever" the first time around.

Removing tattoos is costly, uncomfortable and time-consuming, but the affinity for body art is so strong for some people that they do it to clear space to tattoo all over again.

Many dermatologists specialize in laser tattoo removal, and some laser hair-removal centers are adding the service. In California, there are removal centers like Dr. Tattoff, Tat2BeGone and Tattoo MD.

Most of Dr. Tattoff's clients are women ages 25 to 35, said James Morel, the chief executive of the company, which has given more than 13,000 tattoo laser treatments since opening in 2004. "Maybe women are getting more tattoos than they used to," Morel said, "or maybe they just have a higher level of tattoo regret than men."

On the horizon is a development that could change the very nature of tattooing: a type of ink encapsulated in beads and designed to break up after one treatment with a special laser.

The technology for the ink, called Freedom-2, was developed by scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brown and Duke universities. It is to hit the market this fall.

"We think the fence-sitters who always wanted a tattoo but have been afraid of the permanence will jump in and get tattoos," said Martin Schmieg, the chief executive of Freedom-2. "But as your life changes from young to middle-aged to older, from single to married to divorced, you get tattoo regret, so we think the tattoo-removal market will increase as well."

There are no conclusive statistics on tattoo removal, but Catherine A. Kniker, a senior vice president for Candela, a laser manufacturer, estimates that Americans will have 100,000 laser tattoo-removal treatments this year.

Tattoos have been used for centuries to reflect changes in life status, whether passage into adulthood or induction into a group like the military or a gang. In recent years, tattoos have also become a fashion accessory.

A report by the Food and Drug Administration estimated that as many as 45 million Americans have tattoos. The report based the number on the finding by a Harris Interactive Poll in 2003 that 16 percent of all adults and 36 percent of adults ages 25 to 29 had at least one tattoo. The poll also found that 17 percent of tattooed Americans regretted it.

"If you are the guy with the big tattoos of Motley Crue and Poison who thought the 1980s were going to live forever, you just want to wear a big Band-Aid over the tattoos that says 'Whoops!'" Morel said.

A tattoo that cost several hundred dollars could require several thousand dollars and many laser sessions to remove. Dr. Tattoff charges $39 per square inch of tattoo for each treatment.

Devices called Q-switched lasers are used to shatter tattoo pigment into particles that are cleared by the body's lymphatic system. Full removal takes an average of eight treatments, spaced at least a month apart, using different Q-switched lasers for different-colored inks, said Suzanne Kilmer, a dermatologist and laser researcher in Sacramento.

Each treatment, which can be eased with numbing substances, incrementally fades the tattoo. Some patients are left with pristine skin, others with a shadow or white spots, Kilmer said.

Many states allow nurses to perform laser treatments. But Kilmer said patients would be better off going to experienced dermatologists who own a variety of lasers and have been trained to treat complications such as allergic reactions.

Some researchers are trying to determine whether tattoo-removal treatments affect the lymph nodes. Researchers in Europe reported that lasers used on certain pigments had created toxic or carcinogenic byproducts.

"You would be concerned about where the pigment goes, how long it is there and at what concentrations," said Paul C. Howard, director of the Center for Phototoxicology at the National Toxicology Program of the FDA, which is also researching pigments.

Despite such concerns, Dage Decuir, a comptroller at a construction company, was at Dr. Tattoff recently, continuing treatments to remove a cat from her chest and a pig from her arm, which would otherwise distract from her strapless wedding gown.

Roger Rodriguez, himself a tattoo artist, was having an amateur tattoo removed. The tattoo - his mother's name, Margarita, in wobbly calligraphy that had been partly covered with a sprawling tattoo of his last name - had been done when he was 12.

"The back is good real estate," Rodriguez said. "We are bulldozing everything so I can have a blank canvas again."

Eric F. Bernstein, a dermatologist and laser researcher in Bryn Mawr, Pa., was treating David Donch, of Collingswood, N.J.

Donch, a substitute teacher, wanted to erase black-and-white scenes of suffering souls and multicolored stained-glass windows that covered his lower right leg - a task that could take as many as 30 treatments, Bernstein said.

Donch said that the treatments felt like rubber bands being snapped against his skin but that it was worth it. "As I am getting older and planning to start a family and get my teaching certificate, I am more aware that appearances are important," Donch said.

Brannigan, of Deal or No Deal, said she was happy to see the name of her former fiance fading from her wrist. She said she had learned an important lesson: "I'm not going to get a tattoo of another guy's name until I get married."

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