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The Doctor’s Corner: Love your tattoo? Make sure you do

Ouch! Yeoww! Sizzle ... Yikes! Eeeck! Whiff … Dang! Why did I ever think I wanted that tat there forever?

Tattoo removal is a sort of oxymoron, an expression of opposite concepts. Taking the plunge into inking one’s skin has something in common with marriage, parenthood, tubal ligation and vasectomy. One should never make these pivotal life choices thinking it’s “no big deal” to change one’s mind and reverse the decision.


I couldn’t help but notice the black nylon sleeve worn by a waiter one sizzling afternoon at a beachfront restaurant patio in Laguna, apparently covering a tattoo-laden arm. With our recent sweltering heat, I suspect many tattoo cover-ups added to the discomfort of folks with illustrated skin.

At the pleasant office of Newport Dermatology & Laser Associates in Newport Plaza at Fashion Island, I was welcomed for a journalistic field trip to observe a tattoo-removal laser treatment. A laser nurse specialist deftly wielded the beam toward two tiny, unobtrusive tats, now unwelcome on the creamy, otherwise pristine skin of a wincing patient.


The practitioners emphasized that a tattoo is rarely removed completely. In many cases, the skin is left with a discoloration, sort of a white shadow. Topical numbing can be applied to reduce any discomfort. In addition, local anesthesia can be injected to make the laser session less uncomfortable, although administration can be painful and may add to the expense.

Tattoo removal seems to be a growing industry. A glossy brochure with a gift card from a place in Beverly Hills showed up at my medical office. No matter how expert the tat zappers, you are paying someone to burn your skin over and over, with no guarantee of how many treatments are required, how much pain you will endure, what it will finally cost or what will be the ultimate result.

What you get depends, in part, on your skin type. Darker skin can require more treatments. Colors, such as red, orange, yellow and green, are the hardest to erase. Amateur tattoos, put on by buddies, are generally easier to shed but may not be etched with much expertise. Unless universal precautions with needles, other equipment and ink are observed, any tattoo can be a source of hepatitis C or even HIV.

The tattoo removal process requires discipline and determination. It will cramp the style of outdoorsy types and those who frolic in oceans or pools. According to Newport Dermatology & Laser Associates, multiple treatments are the norm. They should be six weeks apart and can number 10 or more, sometimes administered over a year.


During that time, the area involved has to be kept out of the sun and out of chlorine or salt water. Instructions include covering the skin with bandages and ointment to prevent infection. Blistering and bruising may occur.

That’s a lot of work.

Stories of regret over tattoos abound. There’s the woman with her ex-husband’s name on her derriere. What does her new husband think?

Sometimes people cover undesired tattoos with bigger images, leaving even more skin for the tat barbecue should they choose removal someday. That can make the process more painful for the pocketbook too, since the cost of removal is often figured by the square inch.


By the way, tattoos may sizzle a bit when you get an MRI. Apparently, the swelling and burning that can occur doesn’t last long. Be sure to inform folks at the radiology center, so appropriate precautions can be taken.

No matter how you zap it, tattoo removal is not for the faint of heart. Think hard before you recline under the inked needle gun. Consult people you trust stone sober, in the light of day, before signing up. Consider the fact that it can be more difficult to find skin cancers on patients with extensive tattoos.

By the way, it is illegal for a tattoo shop to work on anyone under the influence or under the age of 18.

Good luck with tatting and tat zapping!

For more information, consult the Federal Drug Administration Consumer website at

DR. JANE K. BENING is a board-certified gynecologist who has lived in Laguna Beach and had a private practice in Newport Beach for 22 years. She can be reached at or at her office at (949) 720-0206.