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Dr. Susan Taylor Headshot

Tattoo Regret: What's That?

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Yesterday, my oldest daughter asked me if I wanted to get a tattoo with her. After pausing` for a moment, I told her I didn't think so. The reason that I gave her was "Tattoo Regret." Her response, "Tattoo regret, what's that?"

Several times a week, I will have a patient come to my office who simply does not want to have their tattoo anymore. The patients who ask to have their tattoo or tattoos removed are all different ages, usually in their 20s or 30s but some are 40s to 60s.

Of course, as you would suspect, the most common reason is that John or DeSean, Ashley or Deionna aren't around anymore. So, at this point in their life, they have "Tattoo Regret" for having gotten the tattoo in the first place... but I often wonder if they also regret having gotten into a relationship with John or Ashley at all. Or perhaps, their real regret is having broken up with DeSean or Deionna.

In fact, more and more people of color are coming in. A report published in 2006, demonstrated that 28 percent of Blacks, 37 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of other non-Caucasians surveyed had gotten tattoos compared to 22 percent of Caucasians. It was interesting to see that twenty-six percent of those under age 18 and fourteen percent over age 18 reported that they had a work or social problem with their tattoo (the social problem sounds to me like the new boo is not happy with the old boo's name).

The next most common reason for "Tattoo Regret" is that the person is having a problem or reaction in the tattoo. Reactions can begin as early as a few days after getting the tattoo to several months or even years later. In the report, 32 percent of people under the age of 18 and 9 percent over the age of 18, had a medical problem with their tattoo within the first 2 weeks.

Early reactions are most commonly infections in the tattoos with redness, tenderness, swelling and bumps. These infections are usually from common skin bacteria like Staph and Strep and are easily treated with antibiotics. But more serious infections can develop, such as a form of tuberculosis, that two of my patients have contracted. The specific infection is called Mycobacterium chelonae and if not cured by weeks of oral antibiotics, the tattoo must be surgically removed.

Allergic reactions also occur commonly in tattoos and they cause itchy, red bumps. The allergy is usually from the dyes that are used to create the tattoo such as mercury in red dye, cadmium in yellow dye, chromium in green dye and colbalt in blue dye. Common additives to black dyes may also cause a reaction. Cortisones can treat most of these reactions.

There are also some diseases that occur commonly in blacks that can develop right in the tattoo. One of the most common is sarcoidosis which is a granulomatous disease that affects African American women in particular. Sarcoidosis occurs inside the body, in the lungs, heart and eyes but also on the facial skin and in tattoos. Large, red bumps often develop. Cortisone creams or injections are used to treat this disorder but removal of the tattoo may become necessary.

One of the best ways to avoid infections is to avoid tattoo parties and avoid having your tattoo done in someone's basement or home. Research and locate a licensed tattoo salon or parlor, even if it means traveling to a different part of your city or town. Make sure the parlor is clean, including the chair that you sit in and the floor. The tattoo artist must also be clean and well groomed (right down to his or her hands and fingernails). Finally, make sure that the needles are sterile and have not been used on someone else as well as the dyes that are used. Ask the artist to dilute the dyes with sterile water to avoid the Mycobacterium chelonae infection that I told you about earlier.

I think about the women who, for her 25th Anniversary, had her husband's name tattooed on her wrist. She thought that the marriage would now last forever. It sounds like she didn't hear about the 99 year old who asked for a divorce after 77 years of marriage. So what can be done if forever does not last forever or if you have a serious case of "Tattoo Regret?"

The best way to have a tattoo removed is with a laser. It is a bit more complicated for people with skin of color. The key is asking for the right laser, which in this case, is the Q-switched nd:YAG laser. It takes several treatments, 3 to 4, which are performed every 8 weeks or so. Also remember, regret does not come cheap. The cost of tattoo removal will range from several hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the size and location of the tattoo.

I ultimately decided not to get a tattoo because of the fear of "Tattoo Regret" but the question now becomes, will I regret not getting a tattoo? We only live once.