In the first of a two-part investigation Stuart Arnold explores the safety fears surrounding the use of lasers to remove unwanted tattoos

GOT a tattoo?

According to a 2015 survey just under a third of adults in the UK aged between 25 and 39 admit to possessing body art and 21 per cent in the 40-59 age group.

What though if you don’t want your tattoo? It may be the name of an ex-lover or a disliked design perhaps. Whereas once upon a time tattoo removals were the domain of hospitals, such techniques are now readily available at many tattoo parlours and beauty clinics.

But it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’. The Northern Echo has learnt of a confusing lack of regulation in this area, raising concerns about safety.

According to the Care Quality Commission (CQC), using a laser to remove a tattoo is not surgery and therefore it is not a regulated activity subject to CQC registration. Local councils in England and Wales do issue licences for tattooing, piercing and electrolysis, but in most cases these do not cover tattoo removal.

When the Echo called the Department of Health for guidance, we were pointed towards the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which then suggested tattoo removals was either the remit of trading standards or the CQC.

“The problem is there are too many cowboys out there willing to remove tattoos. I have seen some horrendous blistering and scarring,” says Sherleen Cuthbert, a qualified nurse for 21 years who runs an aesthetic clinic in Gosforth, Newcastle.

Mrs Cuthbert paid £4,500 for a laser to remove tattoos and has been appropriately trained to use it, learning the so-called ‘core of knowledge’.

“You can buy them easily from eBay,” she says. “The machines are very powerful and you can burn the skin if you don’t have the relevant training.”

Lasers work by exploding the ink particles under the skin, which is then absorbed through the bloodstream and safely flushed out of the body. Even when properly used the patient can expect a somewhat painful procedure which leaves a bit of redness or soreness on the skin. It’s also important that tattoo removal sessions are spaced up to six to eight weeks apart.

“Your body needs time to get rid of the ink particles and heal otherwise you can overload your immune system,” says Mrs Cuthbert. “I have heard of instances where removals are being done on a weekly basis, which causes too much trauma. It’s not safe.”

Dr Tom Lister is an executive member of the British Medical Laser Association (BMLA), a professional membership body, and works at the Salisbury Laser Clinic, part of Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust. He says about 10 per cent of its work is tattoo removal, but it is a rising trend. The BMLA recently published recommendations to improve safety standards in clinics delivering tattoo removal, but Dr Lister says it is limited in what it can do.

“We need to have some way of encouraging people to meet the standards, either through some sort of membership or through pressure from consumers or maybe the Government,” he says.

Premises carrying out such treatments such as tattoo removals were previously required to register with the CQC’s predecessor, the Healthcare Commission. But in 2010 after a change in the law the requirement was dropped. When the CQC came into being places providing certain types of laser or intense pulse light services used for tattoo removal were no longer subject to such registration.

“The CQC does have a line that they draw and that is probably based on resource”, says Dr Lister.

Dr Lister uses a laser which pulses at up to a megawatt for a tiny fraction of a second, equivalent to what a small power station can produce in the same time.

“If the treatment is too strong people can be left with open wounds which take a long time to heal,” he says. “You are talking about a lot of heat and energy being concentrated on a very small area.

“In a medical facility we dress any damage or bleeding appropriately afterwards, but in some of these tattoo parlours they may just use cling film or do nothing at all, which leaves it open to infection and long term problems.”

He says the nurses at his clinic do between four and six weeks training before they are allowed to do treatments without direct supervision.

Mrs Cuthbert concedes there are premises properly using equipment to remove tattoos, but many aren’t and for the customer it is about “knowing who is good and who isn’t”.

“There’s nothing to look up, no regulatory body, you are reliant on reviews and other people’s testimonials,” she says.

“When someone first contacts me I will do a full medical history, skin typing tests and three tiny patch tests at different settings on the machine and get them to come back in two weeks and see what works best for them.

“If they come here they will get a professional, high quality service, rather than go away maimed and scarred.”

  • Tomorrow: When tattoo removals go wrong