The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the inks used in tattoos to be cosmetics, and takes action to protect consumers when related safety issues arise. At the other end of the tattoo process, FDA also regulates laser devices used to remove tattoos.
The FDA has approved several types of lasers as light-based, prescription devices for tattoo lightening or removal. A Massachusetts company recently received FDA clearance to market its laser workstation for the removal of tattoos and benign skin lesions.
According to a poll conducted in January 2012 by pollster Harris Interactive, 14 percent of the 21 percent of adults who have tattoos regret getting one. And the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) reports that in 2011, its doctors performed nearly 100,000 tattoo removal procedures, versus only 86,000 a year earlier.
Not that simple
Unfortunately, removing a tattoo is not as simple as changing your mind.
Artists create tattoos by using an electrically powered machine that moves a needle up and down to inject ink into the skin, penetrating the epidermis, or outer layer, and depositing a drop of ink into the dermis, the second layer. The cells of the dermis are more stable compared with those of the epidermis, so the ink will mostly stay in place for a person’s lifetime. Tattoos are meant to be permanent.
An effective and safe way to remove tattoos is through laser surgery, performed by a dermatologist who specializes in tattoo removal, says FDA's Mehmet Kosoglu, Ph.D., who reviews applications for marketing clearances of laser-devices.
Lasers used for decades
"Laser" stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Kosoglu says that pulsed lasers, which emit concentrated light energy in short bursts, or pulses, have been used to remove tattoos for more than 20 years.
However, it can be a painstaking process. "Complete removal, with no scarring, is sometimes not possible," Kosoglu notes.