How Does Tattoo Removal Work?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on December 16, 2019
    Last Updated: November 27, 2020

People throw around the idea of laser tattoo removal like they’re experts in the field. They tell you not to worry about tattoo regret; that you can always get it removed later. Not everyone is as confident in the process.

Lasers are scary. From beams to play with cats to hidden weaponry equipped in spy shoes, they vary from harmless to deadly. Where exactly does laser tattoo removal fit on that scale? Are there other options?

There are four common ways you can attempt to remove a tattoo. The most common of these is removal via laser, but other options are surgical removal, dermabrasion and tattoo removal creams. Each of these suits different situations, with creams being the least popular, and least likely to be affective.

How Laser Tattoo Removal Works

The most common form of tattoo removal is using a specially designed laser. There are plenty of different lasers for the job, including:

  • Pico Lasers
  • Spectra Laser
  • RevLite SI
  • Zimmer Cryo 6

The best laser available at the moment seems to be the PicoWay. It works for all skin tones and removes all colored inks. 

Lasers target tattoo pigments using a high-intensity light beam. Darker colors are easier to remove since they absorb all wavelengths.

Tattoo removal by laser works as follows:

  1. The practitioner sweeps the laser carefully across your skin
  2. The beams target the pigment
  3. Each pulse lasts around one trillionth of a second and shatters the ink
  4. When the pigment is broken into tiny particles, your immune system kicks into gear
  5. Your immune system treats these particles as foreign bodies and fights them like it would any infection
  6. The tattoo will lighten as this happens

What To Expect From Laser Tattoo Removal

During your first session, you’ll discuss your goals with the practitioner. They’ll also try to give you a realistic overview of how long the process is going to take. Most of the time, it’ll take up to six sessions, with each session lasting from ten minutes up to a few hours. These sessions will likely be painful and uncomfortable.

The exact duration is highly variable and is dependent on:

  • Skin type
  • Tattoo size
  • Colors
  • How long you’ve had the tattoo

You’ll be given a pair of protective goggles to wear during the procedure and will be made to feel welcome and comfortable. Although removal can be daunting, your artist should treat you with respect and help calm your nerves.

Does Laser Tattoo Removal Hurt?

Yes, but not as much as you’d expect it to. You’ll feel a bearable sting and burn during the procedure. Afterward, your skin may swell and blister, but this is normal.

Your skin should recover within six weeks, and you’ll be ready for your next session. 

How Surgical Removal of a Tattoo Works

Surgically removing a tattoo, especially for large tattoos, doesn’t sound appealing, does it? That’s a lot of skin you’re having scraped off, so you may only want to try this method for smaller tattoos.

The tattoo is removed under local anesthetic — meaning you’re awake as your skin is snipped and stitched. It’s effective, but it leaves a scar. Which is worse, the tattoo or the scar of the memory?

How Dermabrasion Tattoo Removal Works

Dermabrasion is numbing you up and sanding you down like a piece of wood. The tattoo area is chilled, then the skin is sanded with a wheel or brush. The ink can leech out of the skin when the layer is exposed.

This method of tattoo removal isn’t a common choice. The area will hurt for days after the procedure, and recovery will take up to three weeks.

How Tattoo Removal Creams Work

The skin is made up of three layers. The first layer is called the epidermis. The needle passes through this layer to go 2 millimeters below the surface into the dermis. 

The dermis is the middle layer of the skin. This is deep enough for the ink to take to your skin and become permanent. Every tattoo will lose some of its original pigment, but enough of it will be trapped to leave a mark. This is your tattoo. 

The epidermis — the surface of your skin — renews itself every month. If tattoos were placed on this layer, they’d be easy to remove with creams.

Do tattoo removal creams really work, though? There’s no substantial evidence that they do. Why would they? Your tattoo is well below the surface where you’re placing the cream. The cream soaks into your skin, but it can only do so much. At best, it might lighten your tattoo a fraction.

There are still people who swear by tattoo removal creams, so they clearly work for some and not others. This could be due to the tattoo artist not making sure the needle went deep enough in the first instance.

Is Tattoo Removal Worth It?

If it’s a choice between being reminded of a painful memory or stupid mistake and going through some stingy procedures, then yes, the tattoo removal and the associated burn is worth it. Once it’s done, it’s done, and you can forget the whole ordeal.

Lasers break up the ink, while dermabrasion and surgery remove the skin. Tattoo removal cream might slightly lighten ink when it’s applied topically. Once your skin is healed after the final session, the tattoo is history.

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