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At the heart of general practice since 1960

A day lasering away tattoos

Dr Ben Mills uses his GP knowhow to help patients with unwanted ink

Profile: Dr Ben Mills

Dr Ben Mills

Age 44

Role GP partner and director of a laser tattoo removal company

Tattoo removal training Manchester University spin-off company

Location Derby

Hours worked per week Three days a week as a GP partner, two days a week doing laser tattoo removal

09.30

I arrive at the clinic after the school run. It is a room in a hairdresser and beauty salon, with laser warning signs and a lockable door. I prepare the surfaces, draw up syringes of local anaesthetic and dig out that day’s patient treatment cards.

I started four years ago after patients asked for advice about safe tattoo removal. This led me to the deregulated world of laser treatment. There is no standardisation of equipment or training, meaning it’s a lottery for those trying to remove their unloved ink. As with tattooing itself, cheap equipment from overseas is available so that anyone and everyone can ‘have a go’. But a common mistake made by DIYers is overtreating so that the skin cooks and scars.

10.00

My first patient comes in. She has three tattoos – on her ankle, abdomen and shoulder. Only a handful of patients have just the one tattoo.

I check on any problems with the previous treatment and ask about any health changes. We might compare the treatment area with the pretreatment photo. Progress is never as fast as they hope but I’m very clear at the outset that it’s likely to take a couple of years.

I follow my usual steps. I anaesthetise the area, then laser it and apply an ice pack. The anaesthetic and post-treatment swelling limit how big an area we can treat in a session. As a GP I can offer local anaesthetic, which makes a massive difference – I speak from experience as I had a tattoo put on my leg so I could ‘practise’ removing it. It wasn’t until then that I realised how painful the process is.

10.30

One of my regulars comes in. I’m slowly lightening the colourful half-sleeve done by her amateur tattooist ex. She tells me that with a bit of fake tan, you can hardly see it. However, this has taken two years.

11.00

I have a new patient. Based on my GP knowledge I can offer a detailed initial consultation to get informed consent – way beyond the photocopied ‘consent forms’ I’ve seen from other providers. My initial consultation and patch test takes an hour – we talk about what a tattoo is, how the laser works, side-effects and potential problems. I check their health and medication history and anything that might make the skin slow to heal or light sensitive. We discuss how the tattoo needs repeated treatments and despite their enthusiasm, not too often. Appointments are typically spaced six weeks apart, although a longer wait is better for the patient.

Most patients expect it’s going to take time, but some want it gone ASAP so they can get a job that requires ‘no visible tattoos’ or before they get married. I have to let them down gently. With today’s patient we select a patch of tattoo, numb it, laser it and ice it. I send them away to let the patch settle and to let them decide if they want to commit to the time, discomfort and expense.

12.00

I answer a couple of email requests for quotes – from homemade tattoos done 30 years ago to a tattoo regretted after just one day. The cost of treatment varies – ranging from hundreds to a few thousand pounds, over a few years.

12.30

I treat my oldest patient, a 73-year-old man who had an embarrassing tattoo put on his chest 50 years ago in a refugee camp. He hasn’t taken his shirt off in public since, but he wants to return to his native hot pools to ease his rheumatism and would like ‘the lady’ gone.

13.00

I have two more patients, both middle-aged men with forearm tattoos. They feel they can’t roll up their sleeves now they are in the boardroom. Both tell me how they are resigned to the fact their kids will get tattoos because of fashion and ease of access. There are at least 10 tattoo parlours within a mile of my clinic.

14.30

I clean up and it’s time to do the school run. Some people love their tattoos and some tattoos are truly works of art. However, the majority don’t and aren’t. Just like my GP job, there’s lots of work.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • My daughter had a tattoo at 17 and I gave her such a telling off she didn't speak to me for weeks . Now she is in a professional job and mixes with the 'boardroom' types mentioned in the article she regrets it and is getting it removed. I'm my local paper a columnist argued there is no more taboo with tattoos and they don't hold people back but that's plain wrong.
    Imagine you are about to have Brain surgery and the neurosurgeon comes to see you beforehand in his scrubs and he has tattoos all over his lower arms ,back of his hands and on his neck .I think you would have second thoughts about being treated by him.

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  • Wouldn't care a jot as long as he could do the job

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  • Yes but you need to be confident he can do his job even though you don't know anything about his track record .. What if he was 75 years old ? What if he was 28 years old ? What if he was yawning all the time ? All these things can raise doubts in your mind .
    I'm saying appearance can be very important in many areas of life

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  • It's not really about whether you agree with tattoos or not - it's really about having a safe and effective method to remove them once you decide you don't want it/them any more. At the moment it's the wild west out there...

    I see some real scarred messes from 'have a go' outfits. Lots of promise but very little positive result. They come to me and say 'can you fix this Doc?' and I have to say we can get rid of the rest of the ink but you really are stuck with the scars...
    The actual lasering process is very simple - at it's simplest it's just point and shoot - but the vast majority of lasers aren't powerful enough so get over used and this literally cooks the skin. People don't get iced, don't wear eye protection and get re-treated before the skin has healed from the previous session. Result - A real mess.

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  • Aye, your work is independent of the above discussion - thanks for providing insight into this, it's something I've been really interested in the logistics of as I'm sure the demand will explode in a few years when certain styles go out of fashion.

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