Liberating more than light: Laser removal of branding tattoos is impactful in the recovery of sex trafficking survivors

Emily L. Guo, Elizabeth Kream, Alisha Merlo, Paul M. Friedman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Objectives: Sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to engage in commercial sex acts. In 2020, 16,658 individuals were identified as sex trafficking victims in the United States, with thousands more not reported. Many victims are branded by their traffickers with tattoos conveying ownership, including names, symbols, and barcodes. We have partnered with local non-profits in Houston supporting sex trafficking survivors by providing pro bono laser tattoo removal, however we believe there is a greater need at a national level to support these survivors, allowing them to reclaim their bodies. Methods: An online survey aimed at assessing the need and potential impact for pro bono branding tattoo laser removal services was distributed to United States organizations that support sex trafficking survivors. Results: Forty organizations based in the Northeast (15%), Midwest (20%), South (45%), and West (20%) responded. Organizations support on average 81 survivors annually, ranging from 3 to 600 survivors, and estimate that 47% of survivors have branding tattoos. Among survivors with branding tattoos, approximately 67% were identified at an appropriate recovery stage to undergo laser removal. On a scale of 1–10 with 10 being the most impactful on recovery, removal of branding tattoos received an average impact score of 9.2. On a scale of 1–10, with 10 being the most need, pro bono services for laser removal received an average need score of 9.1. Qualitative responses provided several insights: laser removal may be associated with enhanced healing compared to tattoo cover-up, and survivors frequently move during their recovery process thus a successful removal campaign would require a nationwide network of partnering laser surgeons. Conclusions: Approximately 1 in 2 sex trafficking survivors are estimated to have branding tattoos and the removal of these tattoos is recognized as highly impactful on recovery. We propose a philanthropic campaign which involves the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS) establishing a national directory to connect sex trafficking survivors seeking removal of branding tattoos with interested ASLMS board-certified physician members.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-66
Number of pages6
JournalLasers in Surgery and Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • branding tattoos
  • human trafficking
  • sex trafficking
  • tattoo laser
  • tattoo removal
  • Sex Work
  • Lasers
  • Humans
  • Laser Therapy
  • Survivors
  • Human Trafficking
  • Tattooing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Dermatology
  • Surgery


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