A green smiley face tattooed on his thigh seemed like a good idea when Thomas Raymond was 18. But now hes 38, and he wants it gone.
It takes more commitment to get rid of (a tattoo) than it takes to get one in a lot of ways, its like a marriage, said Raymond, a divorced father of four in south Charlotte.
He was just minutes from his first laser tattoo removal consultation at a medical spa, where he plans to have three tattoos removed over the next several months.
Ink drawings that took just minutes to apply and cost less than $100 will now take as long as six months and up to $1,500 to remove. There are many people out there in the same position.
A Harris poll found that 1 in 5 U.S. adults has at least one tattoo, and the number is even higher for the under-40 crowd. Of those with tattoos, nearly 15 percent have expressed regret, the poll found.
With advances in laser technology, tattoo removal has become much more common in recent years, with tattoo parlors, spas and doctors offices across the Charlotte region offering the service.
But if youre considering laser tattoo removal, experts advise you to do some research before undergoing this serious medical procedure involving lasers that can burn your skin.
Yet, in North Carolina, theres little information available to help consumers.
There is no state-sanctioned directory of whos qualified to perform tattoo removal, and cautious customers basically have to demand proof at the removal business that theyre in safe hands.
Jim Hayes, head of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services program that permits tattoo artists and inspects tattoo parlors, said his office does not regulate tattoo removal because its considered a medical procedure. He says the North Carolina Medical Board should be more aggressive about making sure removal businesses are safe for consumers.
Weve had discussions with the medical board about how to deal with this situation, he says, but we havent come up with a good answer yet.
Although medical board guidelines call for tattoo removal businesses to be owned and supervised by a licensed physician, the businesses offering laser tattoo removal are not required to submit verification of compliance. Neither are physicians required to report their association with such businesses.
We are a complaint-driven organization, said Jean Fisher Brinkley, board spokeswoman. If there are unlicensed people who are engaged in the unlicensed practice of medicine, we dont have any way of knowing about it unless someone reports it to us.
Multiple sessions may be required
Twenty years after first getting inked, Raymond started to feel that the tattoo on his thigh no longer fit who he is. The smiley face and two others, one from college and another from an old romance, had to go. Hed thought about having the tattoos removed, but he decided to move ahead only after encountering Satin Med Spa director Jennifer Shulstad at jury duty earlier this year.
Shulstad began offering tattoo removal at her SouthPark spa in 2012. When she meets with clients on the first visit, she takes a medical history and explains the factors that determine the number of treatments required. The more complex and colorful the tattoo, the more removal sessions it takes.
Her husband, Dr. Andrew Shulstad, a SouthPark pediatrician, is the owner and supervising physician for Satin Med Spa.
Minefield for consumers
When a tattoo is inked into the skin with a needle, color pigments are concentrated beneath the skin. To remove a tattoo, pulses of light from a high-intensity laser break those pigments into smaller pieces that the body can shed through normal metabolic processes.
Some have compared the pain level to snapping a rubber band repeatedly against the skin or the burn of splattered bacon grease. At his first visit, Raymond said it hurt even more than getting a tattoo.
Special protective eyewear for consumers is required when lasers are used. And even when done correctly, the procedure could leave scar tissue or skin discoloration.
Its not trivial the kind of damage that can be sustained if tattoo removal is done incorrectly, said Fisher Brinkley.
Gus Anibarro, director of education for the Laser Institute of America, a professional society for laser use and safety, recommends that anyone seeking tattoo removal have it done by a doctor.
Handled improperly, a laser used for tattoo removal could result in a first-, second-, or third-degree burn, he says.
The medical board considers the use of lasers for tattoo removal a medical procedure that requires the supervision of a medical professional. But that doesnt mean that the person removing your tattoo is a doctor or that a doctor will be present during your procedure.
This is a bit of a minefield for consumers, said Fisher Brinkley. It would be difficult to verify credentials even for the savviest consumer.
In 2010 and 2011, the medical board issued public letters of concern to two physicians who were acting as consultants for Charlotte tattoo removal offices that were not physician-owned.
If something goes wrong, if a patient is burned, and it turns out that the (laser technician) wasnt qualified, we will go to the supervising physician, says Brian Blankenship, a medical board attorney. As an educated consumer, if a (laser technician) says they have a supervising physician, but they wont tell you who it is, that should be a red flag.
This hideous thing
Matthew Vojvoda, 31, went into the military after high school, and he got six tattoos within a year of turning 18. In recent years, Vojvoda has spent more than $2,000 on tattoo removal.
If you dont like them that much, and youre willing to sit through the pain, its worth it, the uptown resident said.
But it doesnt always work.
Jessica Elia of Ballantyne decided to get a tattoo when she was 18. Now 32, the teacher has been trying to get rid of it for three years. Its a horseshoe of flowers with a lizard in the middle, and its on her lower back.
But even after nearly 20 laser treatments, it wont budge. Shes grown so desperate that shes considered surgical removal.
Ive thought about having it cut out, she says. I would rather have a scar than this hideous thing.
Dr. Sean Freeman, a plastic surgeon and director for the Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery in Charlotte, said some tattoos are tougher than others to get rid of. For instance, he said, Yellow and green dyes are tough (to remove).
And a tattoo inked too deeply could also pose a challenge. Freeman doesnt recommend going to a spa or a tattoo parlor for a medical procedure, where he says patients face not only medical risks, but are in danger of losing a lot of money on an ineffective treatment.
A few days after his first tattoo removal session, Raymond says the eagle on his shoulder has faded noticeably. It feels a little tender, he says, but he hasnt experienced any adverse reactions. Raymond, who once thought his tattoos would be permanent, says now he just wants them gone. And with his ink fading and his next removal session scheduled, hes on his way.
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