For the first time, some types of tattoos can be removed without leaving a scar.

"The newly developed Q-switched ruby laser delivers quick bursts of energy specifically targeted to burn away carbon, the major ingredient in dark tattoos," explained Dr. Roy Geronemus, a dermatologist at New York University Medical Center.In most cases, the top layer of skin is not injured as the underlying tattoo is destroyed.

Surveys indicate that about 15 percent of adults in the United States have tattoos. Women account for about a quarter of the total.

In the past, techniques used to remove tattoos - surgical excision, dermabrasion (scraping), and salabrasion (scrubbing the area with a salt compound) - left significant scars.

"Ruby laser tattoo removal works best on amateur tattoos and those made of black, blue and other dark colors," Geronemus said. "The typical sailor's tattoo can be easily removed. However, it is not yet possible to eliminate all traces of red and yellow."

The removal procedure takes from seconds to several half-hour sessions, depending on the tattoo's size. People do feel some pain, a sensation which the dermatologist likened to a rubber band hitting the skin.

The procedure, which is done on an outpatient basis, is often performed without anesthesia, although a local anesthetic may be used. Most often, the tattoo to be removed is the name of someone the tattoo bearer no longer holds dear. For other people, the tattoo represents a group or lifestyle to which the bearer no longer belongs, or it now seems unsightly or an embarrassing mistake of youth.

A tattoo can also have more painful associations. "Some tattoos were applied against the bearer's will, such as the numbers on the arms of concentration camp survivors," Geronemus said. "A few people develop allergic reactions to tattoos. This is the only strictly medical reason to have them removed."

Possible side effects of laser tattoo removal include blistering and whitening of the skin.