Laser Tattoo Removal: Everything You Need to Know
We all make mistakes, but when those mistakes are tattoos, they’re a whole lot harder to forget.
You might regret the pink dolphin you thought was cute when you were seventeen, which doesn’t really match with your half-sleeve of skulls and vines. Or maybe you wish your ex-wife’s name wasn’t permanently etched on your skin.
Well, I’ve got good news for you: with laser removal, a tattoo doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
Laser tattoo removal is the most common tattoo removal procedure. Yet, unless you’ve either had a tattoo lasered off or performed a removal yourself, you probably don’t know too much about it.
If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo removed, keep reading. This article will cover all the basics you need to know before making your decision.
What Is Tattoo Removal?
Tattoo removal is the process of getting an area of permanently injected ink removed from a section of skin on the body.
While there are several ways to remove tattoo ink from the skin, laser tattoo removal is by far and wide the most effective and popular method due to its high success rates and lack of serious side effects.
However, tattoo removal hasn’t always been possible. People who used to have tattoos that they desperately wanted to get rid of just had to live with them.
While recent technological advances have allowed various tattoo removal processes to become more affordable and mainstream over the last 20 years, anybody wishing to have a tattoo removed before this time, will have been stuck with their ink until the day they died. (Unless they decided to undertake drastic self-harm measures to remove the inked skin clean from their bodies).
How Does Laser Tattoo Removal Work?
The ink particles in tattooed skin are very difficult to get rid of. In fact, your body is always trying to do it but simply can’t. It recognizes the ink particles as foreign objects and sends an army of white blood cells to break them down and eliminate them.
Due to the fact that those ink particles are so much larger, these white blood cells are powerless against them. (The most they can do is slowly erode it – which is why your tattoo will eventually fade – but they’ll never succeed in eliminating it).
Clearly, those ink particles are tough stuff, which is why it takes something as strong as a laser to get rid of them. Although, not just any old laser will do. For example, using a laser designed for hair removal on your tattoo isn’t going to do much other than waste your time.
Tattoo removal requires a specialized type known as an ultra-short pulse laser. These lasers work by emitting extremely hot blasts in short, quick bursts to heat up and break apart the ink particles.
The pigment of the ink also matters. Different pigments absorb different wavelengths of light. Therefore, for the laser to break down the ink, it has to be set to the right wavelength. Tattoos with different pigments will need to use more than one adaptor to break down every type of ink particle.
Still, the laser doesn’t work alone. Remember those white blood cells attacking the ink particles? They’re still hard at work. Once the laser breaks the ink down into smaller pieces, the white blood cells seize them and carry them to the liver so they can be flushed out along with other foreign objects and toxins in your body.
How Effective Is Laser Tattoo Removal?
Laser tattoo removal is generally an effective procedure, and almost everyone who undergoes it will be able to completely get rid of their tattoo (or come extremely close). Though, that doesn’t mean you can get it removed in one session. It will take multiple visits to a credible laser tattoo removal shop before it’s completely erased. Also be advised that laser tattoo removal doesn’t come cheap.
How many sessions will it take? The standard answer is anywhere from six to twelve, depending on the specifics of your situation. Removals that require more than a dozen sessions are rare but not unheard of.
Between each session, you’ll need to give your body at least six weeks to heal. Remember, the laser just breaks down the ink particles; you still need to give your body enough time to flush them out and recover from any (temporary) damage done by the laser.
If your skin has a darker complexion, you could be looking at an eight-week healing time. Some professionals even recommend going as long as three months, just to be sure.
Here are a few factors that will determine how many sessions you’ll need.
Color of the Tattoo
Your tattoo’s color is a big factor in how effective the laser treatments are going to be.
Darker pigments take fewer sessions to break down than lighter ones. That might sound counterintuitive. Dark colors usually leave the worst stains on your clothes, so you might think, the darker the ink, the more indelible it is.
On the contrary, tattoo ink doesn’t act like chocolate stains on your white shirt, and lasers don’t work the way your chemical stain remover does.
Remember that a laser is essentially amplified light. Black ink, like any black surface, will absorb the most light – the entire spectrum, in fact – which means the laser will have its maximum effect on it.
Lighter colored tattoos, on the other hand, are more reflective. That means more light will bounce off of them, including the light from the laser. Less light being absorbed means the laser will be less effective. Yellow and purple ink are some of the most stubborn ones to remove and they may require a few additional sessions.
You’ll have the hardest time if you have any tattoos with fluorescent ink (often known as UV or blacklight tattoos). As they are so light and reflective, laser treatment might be entirely ineffective.
Thankfully, they’re invisible under normal lighting conditions, so as long as you avoid a blacklight, it’s like they’re not even there. Nevertheless, if you don’t want to be reminded of them every time you step into a nightclub, you could consider alternative removal methods.
Location of the Tattoo
Where the tattoo is on your body also makes a difference.
The parts of your body with the most blood circulation are also those where your tattoos will fade the fastest. That’s why the tattoos that are furthest from your heart – say on your hands or ankles – are the ones that will stay looking vibrant for a longer time.
If you’re removing a tattoo from somewhere on your torso, that will work in your favor. Yet if it’s on your arms or legs – and especially on your wrists, ankles, hands, and feet – it will be harder to take off and will slow down your post-laser healing time.
Age of the Tattoo
Tattoos are permanent but they do fade over time. The older and more your tattoo is faded, the fewer sessions you’re looking at.
Therefore, if you want to get rid of a tattoo you got a couple of decades ago, you will have to spend less time under the laser. On the flip side, if you’re already regretting that tattoo you got last month, expect to need a few extra appointments to get it removed.
Effective but Not Immediate
So, the short answer is yes, laser tattoo removal works but it takes a while before it does. If you want to remove that tattoo of a black panther on your chest that you got done during your hair metal phase in the ‘80s, you’re probably looking at only a handful of sessions before it’s off your skin.
Just remember, even in the best-case scenario, laser removal will take a while. If you have to sit through eight sessions with at least six weeks of healing between each one, it will be almost a year before you’re rid of your tattoo.
Does Laser Tattoo Removal Hurt?
Everyone who ever got a tattoo has had to put up with someone asking them if it hurt.
When that question comes your way, you probably roll your eyes. It’s a needle stabbing into your skin – of course it hurts!
Something similar can be said about laser tattoo removal. All you’re doing is applying concentrated light to your skin, so you might be optimistic enough to hope that you won’t feel a thing… let’s be real! You’re undergoing a treatment involving an ultra-hot laser – it’s just not going to tickle.
The real question is: how much is the procedure going to hurt?
That’s a difficult one to answer. Everyone’s tolerance for pain is different and that’s reflected in the reports from people who have undergone laser removal. However, laser tattoo removal is generally a painful procedure.
Some people claim to have experienced some discomfort from it, while some say the pain is comparable to the pain they endured when getting the tattoo in the first place.
People who have undergone laser tattoo removal often say that it hurts about as much as a rubber band repeatedly snapping against the skin.
Though, again, depending on your pain tolerance, that could either be mildly annoying or painful enough to make you clench your teeth through the whole procedure.
There may be some lingering pain or discomfort after the lasering. It’s been described as similar to a burn or a blister- not excruciating, but not exactly pleasant either.
One thing’s for sure: it’s not a walk in the park. Everyone experiences some discomfort or pain from the procedure. However, if you’ve already braved the pain that comes with getting tattooed, you’ll be able to put up with anything that the laser has in store for you.
Can You Re-Tattoo Over a Lasered Area?
Some people who are considering laser removal want to get rid of a specific tattoo but still want to have tattoos.
If you want to replace the tattoo with something more current, leave yourself open to new tattoos in the future, or simply don’t want a blank spot on your arm when you’re working on a full sleeve, you might be worried that lasering a tattoo will jeopardize your future tattoo plans.
Well, you don’t have the worry. You can still get a tattoo on any skin surface that you have lasered.
In fact, many people get a tattoo lasered precisely because they want to re-tattoo over that area. Lasering is a standard step when getting a cover up. A partially faded tattoo is easier to retouch and update, and it’s impossible to tell that it’s been done on a previously lasered patch of skin.
As we saw above, laser removal works by breaking down and getting rid of the ink particles in your skin. There’s no reason you can’t get a new tattoo and inject new pigments into those now-vacant spots once those particles have been cleared out. It might frustrate your white blood cells, but it will look just like any other tattoo.
Scarring’s Another Story
That being said, there is one exception. If your laser treatment results in any scarring, it might cause some trouble when getting a new tattoo.
Scarring isn’t typical, but the odds of developing scar tissue is higher if you don’t follow proper after-care instructions following the removal procedure.
It’s not impossible to tattoo over scars, but it can be tricky to get it right. Your tattoo artist will be dealing with an uneven skin surface and the ink will not distribute itself in the way it normally does.
Because of that, the tattoo might not look as good as you hoped it would. If you’re dealing with scars from lasering, be sure to work with a highly skilled tattoo artist, preferably one who has experience working on scar tissue.
Even if your tattoo comes out looking great, there’s still one more issue: getting a tattoo over scarred tissue is often more painful. Most people, however, don’t find it unbearable and it doesn’t stand in the way of them getting a new tattoo.
What Are the Risks of Getting Laser Tattoo Removal?
On the whole, laser tattoo removal is entirely safe, so long as it is performed by a competent, trained dermatologist or plastic surgeon using the right equipment.
Still, before undergoing the procedure, it’s important to know what the common side effects are.
Hyperpigmentation and Hypopigmentation
The most common side effect is a change in skin pigmentation, especially for people with darker skin tones. The body sometimes responds to laser treatment by producing either too much or too little melanin in the affected area.
The result is a darkening of the skin (hyperpigmentation) or lightening of the skin (hypopigmentation). These conditions cause the treated area to have a different shade than the complexion of the skin surrounding it. This sometimes results in a noticeably blotchy patch of skin.
These issues are cosmetic only and are not associated with other adverse health effects. Still, it is important to consider that your skin may not look pristine immediately after you get your tattoo removed.
Hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation are only temporary, with most cases resolving themselves within six to twelve months of the laser removal procedure.
Naturally, the process of attacking the ink particles in the skin with a heated laser will have some effects on your skin.
Redness, tenderness, and swelling are common after the procedure. Bruising and blistering can occur as well. While it is healing, the treated area is also at greater risk of infection.
Like hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation, these issues will resolve themselves over time as the affected area undergoes its natural healing process.
There is, however, one permanent potential side effect: scarring. Thankfully, it occurs in a vanishingly small number of cases.
After-care makes a big difference here. Scarring isn’t common, but that’s assuming you’re taking the proper steps to treat the lasered area to ensure it heals as it should. As mentioned above, blisters and scabs might form.
Picking at scabs or failing to treat a blister properly can result in permanent scarring – and it’s no different when those scabs and blisters are caused by laser tattoo removal.
A Safer Alternative
If some of these side effects have you worried, keep in mind that laser treatment is still the safest option for tattoo removal.
More traditional methods like excision (surgical removal), dermabrasion (scrubbing off the top layer of skin), and acid peels (just like it sounds – dissolving skin layers using acid) put you at greater risk. Plus, milder approaches like applying tattoo removal cream, just don’t work all that well, (if they work at all).
Basically, if you decide not to get laser treatment because you’re worried about the risks, you’re left with two options: going with a riskier method, or learning to live with your tattoo.
So, should you get your tattoo lasered off?
There’s a significant time commitment involved, to be sure. Your tattoo won’t disappear over the course of one session, no matter how small or simple the design.
Even if all the right conditions are in place – your skin is light and your tattoo is dark and located near your heart – you’re still going to need about half a dozen sessions.
If you decide to incorporate your tattoo into a larger design or give it some modifications instead of eliminating it entirely, you might still be required to go through a few months of laser treatment and recovery to get it faded to a point where it can be re-worked.
There are some risks, but they’re not very serious and mostly temporary. If you give yourself plenty of time to heal between each session and follow your laser removal professional’s care instructions, you might have temporary blotchy skin, swelling, and bruising – but not much more.
All in all, those are some pretty small things to put up with considering you’re undergoing a procedure that is designed to remove a permanent design from your skin.
There might be some pain involved, too, but it’s nothing extreme and it’s unlikely to be much of a deterrent. After all, you’re the person who once heard the buzz of a tattoo machine and thought, “Bring it on.”
The lasered area can still be tattooed over again. If you miss your old tattoo after erasing it, get back with the ex whose name you lasered off your skin, or don’t want to leave the lasered space blank, you’ll be able to restore the old tattoo or get a brand new one. All you have to do is make sure that you let your skin heal completely before going under the needle again.
Bottom line: if you want to get rid of your ink, laser tattoo removal is safe, effective, and probably your best option.