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New Ink Could Make Tattoos Less Permanent

Having someone's name permanently etched into your flesh is considered by some to be the ultimate testament to a relationship. But wouldn't it be great to make that commitment without really making it ... forever?

A new dye due to hit tattoo parlors this fall will provide an exit strategy of sorts for people who have thought about getting a tattoo, then wondered if they might someday have regrets.

The permanent but removable ink is made by storing dye in microscopic capsules that will stay in the skin for good. But if that butterfly tattoo on the small of your back starts looking lame, it can be zapped away with a single laser treatment that is simpler and less painful than the barrage of treatments now needed.

While the idea might intrigue some — for example, the 36 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 who get tattoos, according to a 2006 study by the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology — some enthusiasts say getting inked without the lifetime commitment wouldn't be appealing. Those in the industry are also skeptical, especially since the company making the dye says it will cost considerably more than a regular tattoo.

"I don't know anyone who would pay more for a tattoo where their thought is, `Maybe one day I'm going to remove this,'" said Jerry Lorito, vice president of the tattoo removal company Tat2BeGone in Costa Mesa, Calif.

The idea was developed in the late 1990s by Rox Anderson, a dermatology professor at Harvard University who founded the New York-based company Freedom-2 in 1999 to bring the product to market.

In 2004, Anderson approached Edith Mathiowitz, a professor of medical science and engineering at Brown University. Mathiowitz specializes in microcapsulating medicines, DNA, hormones and insulin in plastic polymers, which control the time and rate of the drug's release in the body. Some molecules are designed to break open when exposed to heat, ultraviolet light or ultrasound.

Using the same technology, Mathiowitz trapped dye pigments in microscopic beads coated with a safe, biodegradable plastic.

It's possible to remove regular tattoos with lasers, but it can cost thousands of dollars and usually requires between seven to 15 treatments.

With each conventional laser treatment, the dye is broken down into fragments until they are small enough to be carried away by the bloodstream, usually into the lymph nodes. But the Freedom-2 ink particles held in the tiny beads are already small enough. In just one laser treatment, the polymers combust, and the fragments are released and naturally expelled from the body, Mathiowitz said.

She hopes to eventually design molecules that will dissolve over time for a long-term temporary tattoo that would not require any laser treatment.

Mathiowitz doesn't have a tattoo and said that as a scientist, she never thought she'd be working with them. But she said she is happy to help improve an ancient art form.

"This will make tattoos so much safer. None of the toxins from the ink will be able to leak out" and linger in the dermis, as occurs with conventional tattoos, Mathiowitz said.

Freedom-2 boasts it could save a painful and costly removal process for those who have their heart broken or make a spring break mistake.

"Regret is a strong word, but there are people who are parents or are in a job where they do not want their tattoo to show," said Martin Schmieg, president of Freedom-2. "There are times that your life circle changes things, and the form of self-expression you were proud of in your past just doesn't match now."

Schmieg is the only person to use the ink so far. He tattooed his bicep with the company's red logo, then removed it four months later. Photos show the color has disappeared and only a shadow of it looms. Schmieg said it has since faded.

For Elke O'Connor, 39, of Los Angeles, having a decade-old tribal print removed from her throat is costing her at least $1,000, about a dozen laser treatments and pain she described as "excruciating." "It's the worst pain I've ever had in my life," said O'Connor, who had her first treatment last week. "It's like razor blades cutting you."

Despite the pain, she said she still would have declined if she had the option for removable ink back then. "When someone's going into something like getting a tattoo, it's usually something they want forever," she said.

Lorito said the biggest obstacle the company faces is marketing the product to tattoo salons, where he said temporary tattoos, made from henna or vegetable dye that last weeks and sometimes months, are frowned upon.

"When an artist tattoos somebody, in their mind, they want their work on that body for the rest of that person's life," he said.

At Bambu Tattoo Art Studio in Providence, tattoo artist George Dietz said he's skeptical about whether the ink will last, and said he probably won't use it when it's available this fall.

"If people don't want something permanent," he said, "they shouldn't get a tattoo."