Dr. Robin Fleck Exposes the Ugly Truth About Tattoos

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Robin Fleck, M.D., founder and medical director of Body Oasis Laser Aesthetics, comments and unveils the shocking truth about permanent and temporary tattoos. She provides tips on dealing with the dangers inherent in today's tattoos.

For centuries, tattooing has been used by tribal societies to commemorate a religious rite of passage. Today however, it has developed into a decorative form of self expression. “Most people want a tattoo to commemorate a special time or person in their lives, for improved physical appearance, or it could just be the result of an impulsive decision,” notes Robin Fleck, M.D., founder and medical director of Body Oasis Laser Aesthetics in Prescott, Arizona. “Whatever the reason, tattoos pose serious health risks due to the properties of the ink.” There are two forms of tattoos, temporary tattoos applied to the surface of the skin, also referred to as henna, and permanent tattoos in which the ink is injected into the skin. Each form of tattoo poses its own serious health risks.

In March, 2013, the FDA site, MedWatch, reported on several people with temporary tattoos experiencing blisters, redness, raised red weeping lesions, light sensitivity and also permanent scarring. These issues have required emergency medical care in some instances, according to MedWatch. The original henna tattoo was made from a flowering plant which was ground into a paste used to dye skin, fingernails and wool. Today, the ‘black henna’ includes ingredients which make the tattoos darker and last longer, rendering them more problematic. Coal-tar hair dye, added to black henna, contains para-phenylenediamine (PPD). PPD is illegal to add to cosmetics due to its propensity to cause allergic reactions. Regrettably, however, there is no regulation regarding temporary tattooing.

Permanent tattoos contain a conglomeration of ingredients including metallic salts, organic dyes or plastics. The European Commission report noted close to 40% of organic colorants used in permanent tattoos are not approved for use on the skin and 20% of the colorants studied contained a carcinogenic chemical. The chemicals that are used were originally intended for use in writing and printer inks. Furthermore these inks are also used in automobile paints. For permanent tattoos, these inks are injected deep into the skin and often times cannot be removed by lasers.

Many skin problems are associated with tattoos including eczema. Eczema is caused by an allergy to a substance applied or injected into the skin and can appear as localized redness, itching, blistering or even involving the entire skin surface. Another problem with tattoos is the formation of keloids. Keloids are enlarged, thickened scars that project above the surface of the skin. Keloids are often painful, itchy, or unsightly, and are difficult to treat even with surgery.

Laser tattoo removal is a long term, expensive process that is repeated every 2-3 months. Treatment takes about 15 minutes per session and typically leaves no scarring. As many as 15-20 sessions may be required to fade the tattoo completely. Laser treatment of darker colors, such as black or dark blue give the best results. Other colors may require more treatments, but may not fade at all.

Dr. Fleck recommends against getting tattoos due to the health risks and costs of removal should that become desirable; however, she provides the following guidelines to her clients:

  •     Use a surface tattoo at first to see if the design is optimal and something you will not grow tired of.
  •     When choosing a surface tattoo, do your research to ensure that it really does contain henna and not coal tar dyes. Contact the manufacturer and ask if contains PPD.
  •     If you decide on a permanent tattoo, choose dark colors, not white, green or yellow which are difficult to remove with lasers later.
  •     Get references from other clients of the tattoo establishment about their results and side effects, if any.
  •     If you have a tendency to form keloids on other areas of your skin, avoid tattooing, which will likely cause keloids.

Cosmetic dermatologist, Robin Fleck, M.D., is a double board certified dermatologist and internist, recognized by the American Board of Dermatology and the American Board of Internal Medicine. She is founder and Medical Director of Southwest Skin and Cancer Institute and Body Oasis Laser Aesthetics http://www.rejuvadoc.com. Dr. Fleck is a fellow of the American Society of Laser Medicine and Surgery and the American Academy of Dermatology. She is also the director of Vein Specialties in Prescott, Arizona http://www.prescottvein.com and is a member of the American Venous Forum.

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