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Infrared Technology: A New Answer to 'Tattoo Regret'

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 20, 2000 -- Maybe you feel that 'Winona Forever' doesn't really capture your inner heart anymore. Or perhaps the Rolling Stones' signature mouth with the tongue hanging out plastered over your arm isn't helping you get the respect of your kids. One of the many contradictions of youth seems to be that the young think that they will live forever -- but they don't realize that their tattoos will, too.

And one of the realities of middle age is that a mistake of youth, which may have cost only $10-$50 to get, will now cost $1,000-$5,000 to get rid of. It will also take multiple sessions of laser surgery, different lasers for different colors within the tattoo, and a whole lot of time and effort.

A new infrared device, however, has the potential to make tattoo removal much less expensive and less of a hassle because it can remove all the colors in fewer sessions than is typically required of laser surgery, says Tolbert S. Wilkinson, MD. He presented research on the device recently at the annual meeting of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. The device, known as a tattoo removal infrared coagulator (TRIC), works by creating a superficial burn on the skin, thus obliterating the pigment from the tattoo ink.

In a rehabilitative program sponsored by the state of Texas, Wilkinson treated 2,000 tattoos with TRIC. The participants were former gang members who had requested tattoo removal for a variety of reasons. For this group of people, the cost and logistics of laser tattoo removal can be prohibitive. While the repeat sessions for the laser process can take up to two years, TRIC can typically remove tattoos in two or three sessions, Wilkinson tells WebMD.

"The problem is that 80-90% of people who need to get rid of a tattoo can't afford it," he says. "The repeat sessions are difficult for young people to manage, and the removal results were often inadequate for their needs. Many of the program participants needed to have a visible tattoo removed because of a job offer that required no visible tattoos. For example, the armed forces will not accept applicants with visible tattoos." For the participants in the program, then, a safe, relatively quick, and inexpensive way to remove a tattoo helped them move toward a more promising future, says Wilkinson, a plastic surgeon in San Antonio.