About one quarter of Australians under age 30 have a tattoo, and more than a quarter of that group are looking to have it removed.
But who’s doing the removing? The tool of choice these days is a laser, which can and has caused burns and permanent scars on tattoo removal patients. But that doesn’t mean you need to have any medical training to use one. CHOICE talked to experienced laser removers and dermatologists to find out how to navigate the fast-growing - and largely unregulated - tattoo removal industry.
The right skills
Some removers offer medical-sounding assurances such as “Certified Laser Practitioner” or “accredited clinician”, which generally means they took a course given by the laser maker - often a prerequisite for getting liability cover. But that doesn’t mean they’re any good at removing tattoos.
Hilary Quinn, proprietor of Melbourne Tattoo Removal in the suburb of Caulfield, has been in the business for five years and says she’s seen more than a few scarred patients who have suffered at the hands of an unskilled remover.
“I took a laser safety course, but that’s only about using lasers safely, not tattoo removal,” Quinn said. “That’s a skill you acquire over time, and you need to approach it like an apprentice and build up your technique under the guidance of an experienced remover. The industry has really boomed, especially in the last six months or so, and unskilled practitioners far outweigh skilled ones.”
Dr Philip Bekhor, Director of the Laser Unit at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, backs up Quinn’s assessment. “In Victoria your local butcher could sideline in laser tattoo removal, and many removers scar up a lot of patients before they develop any real skill. In reality the process is extremely slow, not every colour responds well, and it can be painful. It’s an invasive procedure with the capacity for injury.”
The right machine
Both Bekhor and Quinn say widespread use of cheaper knock-off versions of the industry standard Q-switched laser - or worse, the use of IPL lasers - are a main cause of injury and unsuccessful tattoo removal. It’s no coincidence that proper Q-switched machines cost about $150,000, while IPL lasers go for between $10,000 and $15,000. The lower cost of getting into the business in recent years is one reason for the sharp increase in the number of tattoo removers.
“The problem is that the IPL lasers function in milliseconds instead of nanoseconds, and the wavelength is too broad,” Bekhor points out. “They’re marketed as an all-purpose machine, including tattoo removal, but shouldn’t be used for that purpose. They often cause distorting of the tattoo and horrific burns and scars.”
Quinn makes the same point. “Every second beautician seems to be offering tattoo removal with an IPL laser these days. It should not be used for that. It shoots a block of light of about two by six centimetres rather than the five to eight millimetre pinpricks of Q-switched lasers. It’s like trying to crack an egg with a machine gun.”