You once adored Janie, but Laura is your honey now. That dragon circling your arm wowed your college buddies, but the executives in the office aren't nearly as impressed.
Just as the number of Americans sporting tattoos has soared in the past decade, so has membership in another group: people who want their bodywork removed. Only then do they come to know the truth -- that laser tattoo removal is painful, expensive and may not do the job completely.
Soon there may be a solution to the phenomenon of tattoo regret -- removable tattoo ink. A company founded by doctors says it will begin selling such ink early next year. The ink is applied just as with any tattoo, and will remain in place as long as desired. But if the owner later decides that the artwork has to go, it can be removed fully and safely with a single laser treatment.
The founders of the company making the removable ink, New York-based Freedom-2 LLC, say their goal is to help those who have come to regret permanently decorating their bodies. But backers say the technology will not only simplify tattoo removal, it will create an expanded market for body art -- since consumers can be now assured that the tattoo will come off easily and without exorbitant cost.
"I think it will open a floodgate for people who want tattoos," says Dr. Bruce Saal, a Los Gatos dermatologist who specializes in laser tattoo removal and has invested in the company. "People will say, 'I want to do something a little wild. Now that I know it's not a lifelong commitment, I'll do it.' "
But others wonder if tattoo artists and their customers will spurn the new ink if it doesn't meet their artistic needs.
Almost one-quarter of American adults have at least one tattoo, according to a study of 500 Americans published September in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Of those, 17% were considering removal, the survey found, but none had yet taken that step.
Many doctors who perform laser tattoo removal, however, say that as many as half of all people with tattoos eventually want them off.
"A very high majority of people would desire to have them removed if there was a simple and easy way," Saal says.
Most conventional tattoos can be removed, but the process is often expensive, painful and time-consuming. Even a simple, small, one-color tattoo can require several laser treatments at a cost of around $1,000. Removals of large, multicolored tattoos can require more than a dozen laser treatments and cost $5,000 or more. And no, laser tattoo removal is not covered by medical insurance.
Multiple treatments are needed to avoid skin damage from the laser. During conventional tattoo removal, brief pulses of energy are aimed at the tattoo, heating skin cells and breaking up the ink particles. Then the body's natural ability to remove foreign particles clears away the ink fragments. The top layer of skin, however, often bleeds slightly and forms scabs. Because of the inflammation produced by the laser, only a small area of skin can be treated at one time.
There are other complications too. Doctors often don't know which type of ink was used, at what depth the ink was applied and other factors that could help make removal easier, Saal says. (He is a member of Freedom-2's scientific advisory board.) Scarring can occur if multiple treatments are needed, and some tattoos can't be completely removed.
Some people who have gotten tattoos in recent years may have assumed that laser tattoo removal would deftly deal with any regrets, says Dr. Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C., and who is not associated with Freedom-2.
But, she adds, they are often stunned to learn of the cost and time involved. "They thought it would be as easy to take off as to put on -- in just one session," she says. "But now with this new dye and polymer, we will be able to remove it in one session."
Freedom-2's ink is removable because it is encapsulated in tiny beads made of polymethylmethacrylate, a synthetic material commonly used in surgical glue and in many types of artificial joints. The fact that the ink is encased in the tiny spheres doesn't affect the application of the tattoo or its appearance, says Martin Schmieg, chief executive of Freedom-2.
"Our inks look and feel and give a result equal to the current tattoos," he says.
Because of the way the beads are constructed, they fall apart when laser energy is applied, Schmieg says. Unpublished tests on humans and animals show that only one laser treatment is typically needed to fully remove a Freedom-2 tattoo and that most Q-switched lasers that doctors use for tattoo removal can be used for the job. A one-time laser treatment to remove a tattoo should cost less than $1,000, Schmieg predicts.
The new ink will be slightly more expensive than conventional ink but will likely add only about $50 to the cost of most tattoos, Schmieg says, because most of the cost related to tattooing is for the artist's time and talent.
The company will sell only black ink initially but will eventually add other colors. It is also developing a "time-limited tattoo," which will consist of ink in biodegradable polymer beads that dissolve and fade over time.
"We look at that as making tattoos more fashionable," Schmieg says. "You can have a tattoo that will go with your outfit now, but in six months, nine months or a year or two, the tattoo will just go away."
But tattoo artists may prove lukewarm to the idea of removable artwork. According to Dr. Stuart H. Kaplan, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills who does laser tattoo removal and isn't associated with Freedom-2, tattoo artists are picky about the colors of their inks. They care about whether they blend well and are durable. An inferior or expensive ink won't fly. "Have they tested the ink in a large enough population to make sure of these issues?" he says.
Tattoo artists are also unlikely to be swayed by the convenient removal factor because as a rule, they don't think about tattoo removal, says Sailor Bill Johnson, executive director of the Orlando-based Alliance of Professional Tattooists.
"That's not our concern," he says. "If someone comes into my tattoo studio and says, 'I may want to remove it later,' we'd just try to talk them out of getting one."
In fact, Johnson says, part of the experience of tattooing is the commitment. When someone has "Sophia Forever" inked on his bicep, the sentiment is that Sophia is permanent, just like the tattoo. Besides, says Johnson, "You make that decision in your life that you are going to put this artwork on your body. It's a statement that you don't worry about what other people think of you."
Johnson says he won't use the ink. "To me, it's a negative to the profession."
But Chris Winn, a La Jolla tattoo artist, says he was instantly intrigued when he heard about the ink at a tattoo convention.
"I think it will be interesting to see the different ways this can bring in clients," he says. "I think it will bring in a group of people who love tattoos but are afraid to get them."