By Carly Cardellino
When I turned 18, I didn't rebel against my parents and get a tattoo. Instead, I waited a year to get inked with a few of my sorority sisters at Matthew's Party and Tattoo in Johnstown, Penn. The six of us were close, and we wanted to get something small that would remind us of our college days, naturally. We were a tight-knit crew then, not so much now. So, we decided to each get a crescent moon, Gamma Phi Beta's symbol, on our left foot directly under our pinky toes, and then added our own touch to it: a hot pink star in the center.
It sounded like the best idea at the time, but I wouldn't say the anxiety of having something on my skin forever and the insane pain I felt when the ink-laden needle penetrated my skin over and over was worth it. I knew it was a decision I might regret, but I got the tattoo anyway because I thought I wanted it.
Turns out I was right to be doubtful, and seven years later, I was beyond over it. I had thought about removing it, but I knew it would cost a lot more than what the tattoo even cost me in the first place, which was $50. The deciding factor was that I didn't want to look down at my feet one day in my wedding shoes and see it staring back up at me — plus, it wasn't even a cute tattoo, nor did it mean anything to me anymore. So, I decided to start the process of tattoo removal.
At the time, I was working for a different magazine and was slated to write a story on tattoo removal, and since the best way to report on something in the beauty world is to try it firsthand, I decided to do just that. I went to the offices of Dr. Cameron Rohksar, M.D., a renowned laser surgeon and cosmetic dermatologist, for my first couple of appointments. I was seriously nervous for my first visit, because I Googled "tattoo removal" beforehand and read about how badly it hurts. I even watched several tattoo-removal videos — lesson learned, don't Google things before going to the doctor.
When I arrived to his posh Upper East Side location, one of his nurses took me into a treatment room and applied a topical numbing cream to my tattoo, and then allowed it to activate over the next 30 minutes. That wasn't so bad. My tattooed skin was now numb-ish, but to be sure I didn't feel ANY pain that the laser was about to impart, the nurse injected one percent lidocaine into the area too. This was actually the most painful part of the entire process: 1) because you have a ton of nerves in your feet, so it's a super-sensitive area to start and 2) there isn't much fat on your foot to cushion the blow of the needle. I may have shed a tear. OK, I totally cried.
After the lidocaine was injected, Dr. Rohksar (who I referred to as Dr. Rockstar because he was awesome AND he was removing my tattoo — also, how could you not? His name sounded too similar!) came in, handed me a pair of glasses to protect my eyes from the laser beams, told me to sit back and relax, and started lasering away at my teal crescent moon and hot pink star.
He explained to me that the laser works by penetrating the skin, breaking up the ink particles, which would bring the ink from inside of your skin cells outside of them. When this happens, your body's own immune system recognizes the ink as a foreign object and gradually eliminates it over time through your lymphatic system. Holy shit. This explanation totally took the attention away from the zapping of the laser, which I barely felt anyway, but I'd describe as a rubberband snapping against your skin over and over at a rapid pace. It even sounds that way.
After the procedure was done, we talked about how many times I'd have to come back (he told me it would be more than 12, because my tattoo had two colors that are hard to remove: teal and reddish pink) as he bandaged up my foot. From there, I was instructed to keep it clean and covered with Aquaphor and a Band-Aid until a scab formed. Cute.
(My tattoo after my first treatment in February 2009.)
This entire process occurred every four weeks (the time it took, on average, for my foot to heal from the previous laser session) over the next year or so, until Dr. Rohksar told me that he didn't have the laser he needed in his New York office to remove the red ink. If I wanted the red removed 100 percent, I'd have to travel to his Long Island office. What?! I don't want to have to go to travel outside of Manhattan for this tiny tattoo! At this point, my tattoo was pretty light, so I declined the offer and put my tattoo removal on hold for a bit.
In May 2010, I met Dr. Paul Friedman, a cosmetic dermatologist in Houston and New York, in a meeting about his latest book (Beautiful Skin Revealed: The Ultimate Guide to Better Skin), and he mentioned that he JUST got the latest technology in tattoo removal. My ears immediately perked up. Not only was he one of the only doctors in New York to have access to the Picosure laser at the time — which works well for black and brighter colors like green and blue and requires half the time older tattoo-removal lasers take — but he had the 532 Nanometer Q-switched Nd:YAG Laser, which gave off short pulses of light that the red ink would actually absorb. I was sold.
That June, I started going to Dr. Friedman once every four weeks. Much like my experience at Dr. Rohksar's office, Friedman's staff would numb up my foot with Emla, a topical numbing cream, and then inject lidocaine to intensify the numbness before he would use a combination of the Picosure and the Q-switched laser to eliminate the rest of the teal moon and the entire red star. Friedman told me that using a cocktail of lasers isn't uncommon, especially when you have a multicolored tattoo and that I'd see results much faster — and it was true. It took only a few sessions to see the tattoo lighten up overall, but it wasn't until almost 18 sessions later that I saw my tattoo totally disappear. The below picture was two years in the making, going to Dr. Rohksar for a year, and then Dr. Friedman for another 18 months.
Here's my tattoo in 2012, almost entirely gone (it's tinted white because I've been keeping sunscreen on it for so long to protect the skin, which is a must when undergoing tattoo removal).
From 2012 to 2014, I didn't go in for treatment from Friedman because I was content with the results, but I recently just made another appointment in May to get the last bit of red zapped out of my skin (it's slightly visible in the above picture). Otherwise, this whole process — which wasn't quick and was definitely painful thanks to the injections mostly — was a total success, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants his or her inked artwork to vanish.
That said, getting a tattoo removed often costs more for per session than your initial tattoo itself, running you between $300 and $500 for a small tattoo, $600 to $700 for a medium-size one, and $800 and up to get a larger one removed. So, my advice to you is save up before you decide to get anything lasered off or talk to your derm about a payment plan. Or, if you're absolutely dying to get a tattoo, save yourself a lot of money in the long run and get one you know you'll want forever.
Photos: Getty Images/Cameron Rokhsar/Paul Friedman