Laser Tattoo Removal 101

The bad news: your mother was right.  It wasn’t a good idea to have your ex-wife’s name tatooed on your bicep. You don’t want the name of your favorite adolescent band across your buttocks for the rest of your life after all.  Hindsight is 20/20.  The good news: tattoos can now be removed in a simple and relatively painless procedure. There are many reasons to have a tattoo removed. One of the most common is to have a former lovers name removed.  Tattoos can sometimes inhibit career advancement in fields where a professional appearance is important.  Sometimes bodies change, and as fat or muscle is lost or gained, the shape and look of a tattoo can become less attractive.  Some people want to remove signs of gangs they are no longer affiliated with.  Other people simply no longer feel that their tattoo aids their self-expression and do not find it aesthetically pleasing.  No matter what your reason is for seeking tattoo removal, you will certainly feel unburdened by removing a tattoo you no longer want.

In this brief article I’ll attempt to answer some common questions about how tattoos are removed and what you can expect from the procedure.

How does laser tattoo removal work? Tattoos are removed by directing laser energy at the tattooed area for a fraction of a second, passing through the outer layer of the skin and directly targeting the tattoo ink.  The laser disrupts the ink, allowing your body to absorb it and break it down naturally.  Over the next few weeks, the body’s scavenger cells remove pigment residues.

What kind of laser is used? In my practice, I use the versapulse, 3 lasers in one.  It is the newest and one of the most safe and effective ways to remove tattoos.

I’ve heard that lasers leave scars or lighter skin in the place where the tattoo used to be. This sounds even uglier than the tattoo itself!  Are these rumors true? Earlier methods in tattoo removal involved the use of dermabrasion, salabrasion, surgery and CO2 lasers, but these procedures left behind scars or lighter skin in place of the tattoo, which may have been worse than the tattoo itself.  With the Nd, most tattoos completely dissappear and patients are left with minimal scars or change in pigment.

Is the process painful? There is some discomfort involved in the procedurel. Patients have described the sensation as similar to that of a tiny rubberband snapping on the skin.  The procedure is much less uncomfortable than getting a tattoo!  If you are worried about potential discomfort, your doctor may apply a topical anesthetic cream to the area. You can also take Tylenol before tattoo removal.  Please discuss these options with your doctor.

How long does each treatment last? Usually only a few minutes.

Is tattoo removal safe? Tattoo removal is a low-risk, out-patient procedure.

How long will it take before I can return to work? Most patients can return to work the same day or following their treatment.

How many treatment sessions will it take to remove the tattoo? Professional tattoos may require 1-10 treatments, with the average being 5-10 treatments. Homemade tattoos usually require 1-4 treatments. All treatments are spaced about two months apart or longer. The number of treatments depends on the amount of ink used, the type of ink used, the depth of the ink in the skin, the location of the tattoo, and the patient’s individual health considerations. Most tattoos are significantly reduced in appearance after the first session.  At each treatment, the tattoo should become progressively lighter.

How much will it cost? Pricing ranges from $100 to $500 as an average per treatment.

Do all colors of ink disappear equally as well? Unfortunately no. Dark (blue/black) inks and red inks fade the best. Oranges, yellows, and purples usually respond well to the laser. Green, light teal/sky blue, inks are the most difficult to remove, although additional treatments can produce excellent results.

Will the tattoo completely disappear? In many cases, yes. However, it is very important to know that over 100 tattoo inks are in use worldwide today, none of which are regulated by the FDA. Not knowing which tattoo ink, how deep or how much was used, makes it difficult to predict the degree of removal on any given tattoo.

What can I expect post-treatment? A healing ointment and a dressing will be applied to the area. The treated area should be kept clean with continued application of ointment given to you by the health care professional. A shower can be taken the next day, although the treated area should not be scrubbed. You may feel slightly “sunburnt” for a few days.

Are there any side effects of tattoo removal? Side effects of laser procedures are generally few but may include hyperpigmentation, or an abundance of color in the skin at the treatment site, and hypopigmentation, where the treated area lacks normal skin color. Other possible side effects include infection of the site, lack of complete pigment removal and a 5 percent chance of permanent scarring.   The vast majority of patients report having no side effects.

How Do I Find a Reputable Doctor to Do Laser Tattoo Removal? At a minimum, you should be sure to research the doctor’s qualifications and be aware of “look-alike” board-certifications: only the American Society of Plastic Surgeons represents the highest degree of professional certification.  You will also want to interview your potential surgeon and ask any questions you may have about the procedure.  Almost all plastic surgeons will offer a free consultation.