At 19, Phoenix resident Ryan O’Sullivan got a tattoo of a black and red star . . . on his lower back.
“I got a tramp stamp, believe it or not, back before there was such a thing as tramp stamps,” says O’Sullivan, now a 36-year-old married executive. “It was the spur-of-the-moment tattoo, which I definitely regretted almost immediately.”
After years of enduring ridicule from friends and hating his ink, O’Sullivan joined the growing group of inked Arizonans removing their tattoos. And new technology, which recently became available in the Phoenix area, is making laser tattoo removal easier and faster.
“The more and more popular that tattoos get, the more chance there is for regret, unfortunately,” says Dr. Jenn Mundt, a physician at Delete Tattoo Removal and Laser Salon in Phoenix. “I think [the tattoo removal business] will just keep increasing . . . I see no slowdown whatsoever.”
In the United States 21 percent of adults — or about 45 million people — are tattooed, according to a 2012 Harris Poll. But not everyone likes their body art. One study states about 25 percent of them have tattoo regret, reports a 2006 Northwestern University poll of 500 tattooed adults.
All this ink-related buyer’s remorse has fueled a booming industry in Arizona, with more than a dozen salons and dermatologists in the Phoenix area specializing in removals.
“One of the biggest reasons people want them removed is to get a job,” says Mundt, who sees on average 15 patients a day. “Or they are just over it. They’re sick of it. They don’t want it anymore.”
About 96,000 tattoo removal procedures were performed in 2013, up more than 50 percent over the year before, according to the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
Most were done using one of about a dozen lasers on the market that break down pigments in the a tattoo, fading the unwanted body art.
To erase old ink, it is both extremely painful and very costly, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to remove a single tattoo depending on size or color.
For the last few years, the most popular laser on the market has been the Q-Switched or Nanosecond laser, which delivers short busts of energy to the skin. But recently a handful of local salons switched to the latest generation of Picosecond lasers, which is a hundred times faster and can reduce the number of treatments required to remove the ink by half.
“The faster you can get that light to go, it just breaks up the ink into smaller pieces, which makes it easier for your body to take away,” says Mundt, who just procured the PicoWay Picosecond laser a few months ago.
The process is still costly — about $175 to $200 a treatment — but requires five to 10 sessions, compared with seven to 14 with the old laser. And it’s still quite painful, although experts say the healing process is superior.
“Tattoo removal is awful. The pain associated with getting a tattoo removed, when the laser hits the ink, it hurts so bad,” says Mundt, who uses numbing injections on almost all her patients. “The new laser heals way better on the skin . . . I am hardly seeing any blistering after. It’s no big deal.”
After just three treatments with Mundt at Delete Tattoo, Surprise resident Angela Mordecai already has seen the scorpion she got tattooed on her chest 20 years ago begin to disappear. Now a 37-year-old mother of two and a health coach, she had decided to get it removed after years of hiding her tattoo with high-necked shirts.
“My astrological sign is Scorpio so I got a scorpion. At the time I was really into that,” she says. “It's something I see every day. It’s big and ugly, and I don't want to have to look at it."
Only a few clinics across metro Phoenix have the new Picosecond lasers, which cost upwards of $200,000. But doctors are crediting the machine to changing the business.
“The new technology has brought more people in," says Dr. Lee Laris, a dermatologist at Phoenix Skin, which features the the PicoSure Picosecond laser. “Our tattoo-removal business has tripled over the last three years."
Laris, who has been removing tattoos using various methods for the past 20 years, is also one of the few doctors in the state who performs tattoo excisions, by surgically slicing off the tattoo — and the patient's skin. Excision, which is roughly half the cost of laser treatment, is one of the most extreme methods of tattoo removal. But for patients whose ink is too deep to remove by lasers (or who want a tattoo removed quickly), it is a viable option.
“If it’s in a good area, we can cut it out and be done in one treatment,” Laris says. “If you can get a laser to take out a tattoo, you are seldom going to have a scar. But if we have to cut something off, you are going to trade a tattoo for a scar.”
Still, if the patient can afford it, Laris says, the new Picosecond lasers produce the best results.
“The [Picosecond laser] is the best technology. It goes after almost impossible to treat colors,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything better.”
A few years ago, O’Sullivan had tried to remove his tramp stamp using the old laser technology.
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“The other one didn’t really do anything. It blistered up and kind of scabbed over, but it looked the same,” he says. “I quit doing it because I wasn’t seeing any progress.”
After learning about the new laser technology, O’Sullivan decided once again to try to erase his ink. After nine treatments with Laris that cost $2,000, the tattoo has disappeared, and O’Sullivan feels like a new man.
“I’m relieved it’s not there. I can go to the beach or a pool party and not have to think about that thing on my back,” he says. “It definitely doesn’t fit my lifestyle. As a matter of fact, it didn’t fit my lifestyle when I got it.”