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Approximately one in five American adults—about 45 million—have at least one tattoo, according to a 2012 Harris Poll. Also according to Harris, about 20 percent of those—9 million people nationwide—have also exhibited some form of regret after the fact.

“A lot of times a tattoo is an impulse decision made at an early stage of someone’s life and they later reach a different stage in their lives where that tattoo doesn’t hold as much weight or meaning,” said Dr. Scott Burger, 41, of Vienna’s UnTattooU tattoo-removal clinic.

Burger, an emergency medicine physician, said the idea to start a tattoo-removal clinic in Northern Virginia came to him as he worked in emergency rooms throughout the Metropolitan Washington DC area and realized how many people had tattoos they wished they could get rid of.

“As an emergency medicine doctor you examine so many people and see so much of their body,” he said. “People tell you about their tattoos, and I began to notice how many were telling me that they regretted them.”

Burger opened Vienna’s UnTattooU in March, and says he now regularly sees several patients daily.

Burger uses a PicoSure laser to remove tattoos in several stages without as much irritation or after-effects as traditional methods.

“It’s the first new technology in 20 years in the tattoo-removal industry,” he said. According to its website, PicoSure laser treatment differs from traditional laser tattoo removal treatments by delivering energy to the tattoo in ultra-short bursts. These bursts are measured in picoseconds (trillionths of a second) which cause the tattoo ink to break apart into tiny particles and are then absorbed and easily eliminated by the body. PicoSure lasers have received clearance from the FDA for this type of treatment, as well as for removing pigmented lesions such as moles, freckles, and age spots.

“The Pico laser identifies the ink particles and smashes them into very fine granules that the body then re-absorbs,” Burger said. “Immune cells called macrophages then identify them and gobble them up like Pac-Man.”

According to esciencenews.com, nationwide nearly 70 percent of tattoo removal patients are single, college-educated females who are 24-39 years old.

“We also see younger people who want to join the military,” said Burger. “There is more scrutiny now, and recruits cannot have a tattoo below the knee, below the elbow on the arm, or above the collarbone,” he said. “We offer discounts to those with tattoos in those areas who are joining the military.”

Even in the civilian world, employment concerns are cited by 40 percent of all patients as the reason for wanting tattoos removed, according to a 2012 ABC news poll. But for 43-year-old Susan Williams, a patient of Dr. Burger’s, the reason hits a little closer to home.

“I have a 10-year-old daughter who has already said she wants a tattoo,” Williams said. “I have told her ‘no way’ but I feel hypocritical because I have two.”

Williams said she was in her early twenties and in college when she decided to get a star on her ankle and another type of lower back tattoo that is now popularly referred to as a “tramp stamp.”

“In my defense, I had that tattoo before Maxim magazine labeled it that, and before everybody began calling it that,” she says. “But I certainly don’t want anyone calling it that now in front of my daughter.”

According to Dr. Burger, prices for tattoo removal with the Pico laser vary, but he says the cost is generally determined by the size of the tattoo.

“For example, a tattoo that is two square inches will typically require about four treatments to fully remove, and cost about $350 per treatment,” he said.

Burger says part of that cost is the result of the fact that his clinic employs registered nurses to ensure patients are receiving top-notch care. In addition to the cost, patients must also be willing to wait 5-8 weeks between treatments. “We only opened in March, so we have not yet had anyone who has completely had their tattoos removed so far,” Burger said.

So far, Williams has had two removal sessions and thinks she may only need a total of three before she is tattoo-free once again. “I’m hopeful,” she said. “It’s still expensive even though Dr. Burger gave me a 15 percent discount because I am getting both tattoos removed at the same time, but for me and my daughter, I think it’s worth it.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com