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October 19, 2006

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stencil step
1) Making and breaking a tattoo: Stencil of tattoo design is applied. (Photos courtesy of Freedom-2)

Body art for the faint of heart

Erasable tattoos are making a mark

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

Ever wish you could get rid of that tattoo of barbed wire around your wrist, or the forearm-length dragon you once thought of as so stylish or macho?

It's not easy. You can go through a long, expensive series of laser treatments, and still not get it completely erased. You can have it sanded off, literally, but that could leave a scar. Then there's the option of surgical removal, a choice that will cost a lot more than the tattoo and may also leave an ugly scar.

removable ink applied
2) Design is outlined using a needle with removable ink.

A professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and a company in New York called Freedom-2 believe they've solved the problem with a new type of ink that can be completely erased with one laser treatment.

"I see a lot of people who've made a mistake with tattoos," says R. Rox Anderson, the dermatology professor. "And I also see people who simply got some bad artwork that can be very hard to remove."

Filling in the design
3) Design is filled in.

"Freedom-2 was founded to give people the opportunity to both express themselves and change their minds," says Martin Schmieg, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Anderson says that "safe" is a key word for this inky innovation. The Mayo Clinic's Web site has a scary list of risks that come with piercing one's skin with ink-carrying needles. There's a danger of contaminated needles infecting you with bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis C and B, tuberculosis, tetanus, and the AIDS virus. Your body may form bumps around the ink (especially red ink), and some people are prone to raised scars from the process. Then there are possibilities of bacterial infections and allergic skin reaction that can occur years after getting a tattoo, particularly one with red ink.

Removable tattoos won't, of course, eliminate the danger of contaminated needles and other equipment, but they will, Anderson and Schmieg insist, provide protection against unsafe inks. Inks used for tattoos are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and some of them contain hazardous materials like lead, zinc, and other heavy metals.

Tattoo is complete
4) Tattoo is completed.

Anderson developed and tested the new inks at Massachusetts General Hospital with the help of Edith Mathiowitz of Brown University Medical School and Harvard Medical School dermatologist Thomas Flotte.

"We have tested our inks in both animals and humans," Schmieg notes. "Actually, I am wearing the very first Freedom-2 tattoo, and, yes, I have even had a part of it removed. Further tests are being done to be sure the various color inks are safe and removable. I expect they will be ready for market sometime next year."

Tattoo history

Tattoos have been around for at least 5,000 years. In 1991, tourists discovered the corpse of a man who had been frozen in the ice on a mountain between Austria and Italy since 3300 B.C. Otzi, the Iceman, as he was named, had 57 tattoos.

Tattoo in two stages of removal
5) In the first test removal, the tattoo was treated with a laser at intervals of 2, 3, 6, and 12 months. A process that removes the tattoo with one laser treatment is under development.

At one time or other, tattoos were used as part of medical treatment, or for warding off evil spirits. In the 1800s, tattoos were popular as a form of upper-middle-class erotica. The modern age of tattooing began in 1891 when Sam O'Reilly invented the electric tattooing machine. Today's devices boast colored inks that are injected about one-eighth inch below the skin.

No one has recorded when people started becoming disaffected with their tattoos, but that, too, probably goes back many years. Anderson has long had an interest in removing tattoos by laser. He and his colleagues came up with extremely small plastic sacs that hold dyes or pigments. This plastic has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it cannot be absorbed by the body. The dyes can, however.

As long as the colors are in the sacs, the tattoo they make up stays together. But when a laser beam shoots holes in the sacs, the dyes escape, break down, and get absorbed by the body. The researchers described the technical aspects of this work last month in the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery Abstracts.

The project is like a hobby for Anderson, whose full-time job is director of the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Mass General. There, he specializes in using light to treat cancer and other skin diseases. "I'm a professor of dermatology," he notes, "not a professor of tattoo-ology."

Anderson and Schmieg are now active on a project dedicated to finding ways for removing existing tattoos. "Give us some time, and we will find a solution," Schmieg says.


Copyright 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College