Women Race to Get Tattoos Erased

Perhaps it was because she had always wanted to do it. Or it could have been the fact that her college friends were road tripping from her university in Boston to Rhode Island to have it done.

Whatever the reason, Jana Steele says that the flowers she got tattooed on her lower back when she was 18 years old are a lingering reminder of her freshman year.

"It was something that I always talked about doing and wanted, but I probably would not have gone through with it without a big group of people," she says.

Now a 26-year-old professional living in Los Angeles, Steele says she hasn't yet thought seriously about having the tattoo removed.

"I like it; I can see it when I want to see it, but everyone else can't see it," she says. "It doesn't affect me at the workplace.

"The only thing would be one day when I'm really old, and whether I would want a wrinkly, probably faded tattoo on my body. I might remove it then."

But unlike Steele, many among the millions of women ages 18-30 who have tattoos -- estimated to be about one in four women, all told -- would like to get rid of their ink, a new study published in the journal Archives of Dermatology suggests.

Lead study author Myrna Armstrong, professor at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and her team surveyed 196 people who sought tattoo removal -- 66 men and 130 women -- at four separate tattoo removal clinics.

What the researchers found through this survey was that those who sought tattoo removal were more likely to be women who were white and single with some degree of college education and between the ages of 24 and 39. Armstrong says the reason behind the larger proportion of those seeking tattoo removal falling into this group may be that young women experience more "societal fallout" from their body art than others.

"What we usually tend to find is that some event, usually a negative event, triggers [tattoo removal]," she says. "It's negative comments -- from work, from home and from school as well."

That's not all the study found. Armstrong and her colleagues say their findings suggest that those who are unhappy with their ink are getting rid of it sooner.

On average, those in the new study stuck with their tattoos for 10 years before getting them erased with a laser. In 1996, a similar survey found that people would wait 14 years to have a tattoo removed. The difference may be due to advancements in tattoo removal technology.

Still, the authors note that most of those who have unwanted tattoos never seek removal; while 20 percent may be dissatisfied with their body art, only about 6 percent opt for the laser.

Back to a Clean Slate

But why get rid of the tattoo? Dermatologists say that career concerns figure big, as visible tattoos may be viewed as unprofessional in some fields.

"From my observations, many people seek tattoo removal because they feel having tattoos may hurt their chances of either getting a job or advancing in their careers," says Dr. April Armstrong (no relation to Myrna Armstrong), assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California Davis Health System. "This is especially the case with women who seek tattoo removal from a visible area."

Dr. Mathew Avram, director of Massachusetts General Hospital's dermatology, laser and cosmetic center in Boston, says that a change in life circumstances is a clear motivator when it comes to tattoo removal. But he adds that getting a career-killing tattoo removed is not an exclusively female domain.

"It seems like 19 is the magic age when a lot of people are getting tattoos," he says. "Five to 10 years later, maybe you have a wedding, or you're moving up in the world or have children, and you start feeling a little bit funny about that tattoo."

Also, new technologies are making tattoos less permanent than ever. Along with more effective laser removal equipment, some of today's tattoos are even designed to be easily removed. Last year, a company called Freedom 2 developed a permanent tattoo ink designed to be removable with a single laser treatment.

But Avram cautions that even though the technology for the removal of conventional tattoos is improving, it is far from a sure bet.

"It is important for patients to know that certain tattoo inks respond to lasers better than others," he says. "In all cases, tattoo removal requires multiple treatments; it's not a one-shot deal. And sometimes you can't remove the tattoo completely."

Location, Location, Location

For these reasons, Avram says he feels that young people should think twice before opting for permanent body art.

"The take-home point for people is that before someone gets a tattoo, they need to consider all of these factors," Avram says. "Most people, when they get a tattoo, they do it typically as an impulsive decision. Often times, they fairly quickly regret this decision.

"It is very easy to get [a tattoo] placed; it is a much harder, longer and more expensive thing to get rid of a tattoo."

But Myrna Armstrong says she hopes her research won't necessarily dissuade those who want tattoos from getting them.

"I don't want this to be a tattoo-bashing situation at all," she says. "I would say that perhaps instead of putting a tattoo in a very visible spot, you might put it in a spot where you can control whether or not it is seen.

"When people think about the benefits, what people say tattoos are doing for them is making them feel special, making them feel unique. This way you can still have that feeling."