Special Report on Private Health: Get 'em off (or how to expel alien particles): Catherine Riley sets about undoing some enduring mistakes of the past

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DOCTOR BOZEK says I will be able to wear a bikini this summer. Not that I don't anyway, you understand, but the tops of my arms are usually covered in thick sunblock or sticking plaster, hiding the fact that some years ago, I got tattooed.

Tattoos may have a 5,000-year history but people still stare at women with body art. This year, however, things will be different. I have so far had five sessions of laser therapy and already the designs I was once so proud of are a pale shadow of their former dubious glory.

It certainly is not a cheap way of undoing the mistakes of the past. Treatment starts at pounds 125 and depends on size, colours and complexity. Lasercare, a specialist clinic in Harley Street, London, is now treating NHS patients, referred by their local health authority. Trying to get tattoos removed on the NHS used to involve a long wait and the tattoos had to be heavily disfiguring to qualify for treatment.

Tattoo removal is big business; on each of my visits to Lasercare the surgery has been busy - surprisingly full of young women like me who have realised that what we once thought was forever can, in fact, be removed without a trace. Spider veins, port-wine birthmarks and many other blemishes can all be successfully treated.

Tattoos are formed by forcing blocks of coloured pigment into the dermis - the deeper layers of your skin. Most alien particles your body can normally get rid of, but as the blocks of colour are too large, the body isolates them by trapping them in a wall of collagen. The lasers work by breaking up the tattoo pigment into tiny particles, which are either removed by your body's natural defence mechanisms or expelled through the skin.

I was a apprehensive; the machines are enormous but the laser aperture itself is like a pen, which is guided over your tattoo. Does it hurt? Well, yes, but it's not unbearable - the sensation is rather like being flicked with an elastic band.

The treated area bleeds a little and then scabs over, but within a week the skin feels as new. Unlike previous methods of tattoo removal, such as der mabrasion, skin grafting or plastic surgery, the skin is not permanently damaged so there is little risk of scarring. The pain of removal is a reminder never to get one done again.

It is a strange experience, having my tattoos removed. They have been 'me' for almost 10 years and I find it peculiar that they are disintegrating a little more each day. But I'm looking forward to wearing those little black frocks I've been keeping.

Lasercare: London 071-224 0988; Birmingham, 021-454 4614; Harrogate, 0423 528383

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