Sascha Niemand is feeling a little apprehensive as he enters the doctor’s surgery. Awaiting him in Bochum, Germany, is a new laser machine named PicoSure which was designed to delete tattoos.
The burly insurance salesman is here to have an ornate tribal design that he’s had for over 10 years removed.
“It was a sin of my youth. Over time it’s lost its shape. It looks like the Batman symbol now,” he says ruefully. Occasionally you can see the tattoo’s outline beneath his shirt and Niemand thinks this could put some of his clients off.
Niemand is being treated in the Centre for Laser Medicine at Ruhr University Clinic in Bochum, Germany. It’s the first clinic in Europe to use PicoSure, which initially went on sale in the United States, and has been testing the technology out since May.
The US company Cynosure makes the PicoSure range of laser systems. It promises its lasers can almost completely remove a tattoo without leaving any shading or scars. Cynosure also says PicoSure is faster than other lasers and is almost painless.
“I watched a couple of videos online that showed how tattoos were removed with the old laser technology. That looked quite brutal,” says Niemand. “They say the pain is even worse than getting tattooed in the first place.”
Shortly after Doctor Klaus Hoffmann begins the treatment, Niemand says he’s pleasantly surprised. “It feels like small electric shocks.” After about 10 minutes the sitting is over. Between two and four more weekly sittings will be required to remove the tattoo.
In the past it took between 15 and 20 one-hour sittings to get the job done.
Tattoos have been massively trendy in Europe for the last few years. As regret sets in, the business of deleting them is on the rise, although it’s much more expensive to have a tattoo erased than to have it etched in the first place.
Hoffmann is very impressed with how PicoSure has performed. The machine removes tattoos by bombarding the colour particles with ultra-short blasts of light that last for tiny picoseconds.
The body’s scavenger cells then take care of removing the destroyed pigment. The skin’s natural pigment is not harmed by the procedure, which means there is no unsightly scarring.
“Patient enquiries have shot up since we started using PicoSure,” says Hoffmann.
However, Germany’s Association of Tattooists is not so welcoming of PicoSure.
“We are not happy with this laser treatment,” says spokesman Maik Frey. “We don’t know what long-term effect the laser will have on tattoo pigments.” The association says it has based its stance on findings by Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
Scientists, doctors and tattooists discussed the possible connections between tattoos, allergies and cancer at a special conference organized by the BfR in June. To date the only thing that can be said is that getting a tattoo is not completely without risk.
The risks associated with the laser treatment have also not yet been fully assessed.
“We don’t know what happens to the pigment particles,” says Peter Laux from the BfR. Much information is still missing such as what substances are formed by the laser in the body and how large are the remaining pigment particles.
Hoffmann believes those concerns are exaggerated. “They’re based on hypotheses and there are no known risk factors.”