Tattoo’s are typically thought of as a permanent marking. And for the most part they are. However, laser removal has made it possible to partially or entirely remove tattoos. Laser removal is the most common method used for tattoo removal, yet most people don’t know all too much about it. It’s one of the topics that people ask me about most frequently, so I thought I’d share my knowledge, and shed some light on some of the most commonly asked questions about the topic. Whether you’re considering laser removal for yourself, or are just curious and wanting to learn more about it, this post should answer some questions.
LASER REMOVAL EXPLAINED
Lasers remove tattoos by delivering laser energy to the unwanted tattoo, targeting the ink and breaking it down into smaller particles. The tiny particles are then eliminated through the body’s natural processes.
There’s a lot of focus around “regret” in the removal industry. But in many cases, someone may just want a tattoo that is more reflective of their current taste or place in their life. Or…might not want the tattoo for a variety of other reasons. Some other reasons for wanting to remove a tattoo might be a job requirement, running out of room for additional ink, or no longer relating to a tattoo.
For me, when I first started getting tattoos I was young and didn’t know a lot about them. I also didn’t know that I would end up wanting an extensive amount of my body covered. That ended up playing a big part in why I decided to go through the time, expense, and hassle of laser removal. I wanted to have larger pieces that flowed together rather than a bunch of smaller pieces randomly placed on my body.
WHY TATTOO REMOVAL?
I’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes along my tattoo journey. And apparently, I’m not the only one since it’s estimated that 50% of people with one or more tattoos have regrets at some point. There are a variety of reasons why someone might want to have a tattoo removed. Whether you’re unhappy with the appearance of a tattoo, no longer want your exes name on your body, your tattoo has faded or blurred over the years, or you’ve developed an allergic reaction, there are many reasons why someone might want to remove some ink.
My laser removal process has been a long one, and I’ve had numerous pieces removed (some small, some very large). My main reason for removing some of my tattoos is because over the last few years I really figured out the overall theme/aesthetic that I wanted for my collection, and I also decided that I wanted everything in my collection to be as large scale as possible, rather than having a bunch of smaller tattoos. My goal now is for every piece to fit each body part properly and for my bodysuit to have the feeling of a mural.
So whether you’re thinking about laser removal for yourself, or are just curious about the subject, here are 10 things that I think are worth knowing.
- TATTOO REMOVAL IS A LENGTHY PROCESS
Tattoo removal doesn’t happen over night, and it’s not a magic eraser. In fact, it can take many months or even a year plus to remove a tattoo. Laser removal takes awhile because each time the tattoo is lasered, particles are broken down and digested by the body’s immune stystem.
The regeneration period can take up to eight weeks, and during your next laser session, the laser breaks down new particles of pigment. This continues after each laser treatment until the tattoo is no longer visible. It’s common to need anywhere from 4-10 sessions, and sometimes more. You will need to wait at least 6 weeks inbetween each laser session.
It is sometimes recommended to wait 8-10 weeks between sessions. Laser removal puts your immune system to work, and it’s best to allow plenty of time in between sessions to allow your body to heal properly. It also reduces the chance of skin discoloration and scarring.
To put it into perspective about how much time is needed to complete removal, let’s do the math. If you need 8 sessions with at minimum 6 weeks of healing time in between sessions, it will be close to a year before your tattoo is removed. It’s definitely a process, and takes a lot of time and commitment. But the results are worth it in the long run.
2. IT’S EXPENSIVE
Getting a tattoo is costly, and getting a tattoo removed can be even more expensive since it requires many laser sessions to complete the removal process. It’s difficult to predict exactly how many sessions it will take to remove a tattoo. The clinician can give an estimate based on factors such as color(s) of ink, size, age of tattoo, skin type/color, location of tattoo, etc.
The American Society For Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) estimates that the average cost per laser session is $463.00. I haven’t personally paid that much for my sessions, but variables such as where you live, size of tattoo, where you are having the removal done, type of laser being used, etc. all affect the cost.
There are different methods that laser facilities use to determine costs of laser removal.
PRICE PER SQUARE INCH
When price is done per square inch, you only pay for what you need. It can be a little tricky to determine exactly what fits into a square inch, so price estimates might vary a little.
With this method of pricing, tattoos are categorized into various size groupings, and then given a cost based on the size category the tattoo fits into.
The laser facility might use a flat rate method. An average cost per session is given. This method is usually only used for tattoos that cover a fairly small area.
3. THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LASERS
Laser removal has come a long way over the years. As technology improves, the capabilities of the lasers has greatly improved. Below is a description of two types of lasers commonly used for tattoo removal.
Q-switched is the most common type of traditional laser used today. This laser is less expensive than the Picosure laser, and requires more sessions. The average number of treatments is anywhere from 10-15, and the cost ranges based on the size of the tattoo etc.
Q-switched laser is a non-invasive laser that fires high powered pulses of laser energy in extremely short bursts. These are measured in nanoseconds, which are one billionth of a second! The energy heats and breaks down the tattoo ink.
The Q-Switch laser uses pressure waves that are meausured in nanoseconds. With this method, the removal is done by essentially focusing a beam of energy at the tattoo. The energy is released in a controlled method which is realeased
Picosecond lasers are the most advanced FDA approved lasers for fast and effective removal. The first picosecond laser was PicoSure. It is considered the gold standard or “cadillac” of laser removal. PicoSure technology delivers ultra-short pulses of thermal energy (called Picosecond) to penetrate the tattoo colors and break them up.
Instead of building up heat, PicoSure delivers energy extremely quickly, (in trillionths of a second) causing tiny particles that make up pigment and tattoo ink vibrate and shatter, without burning surrounding tissue. Less heat means less discomfort and less tissue damage. PicoSure also usually requires fewer sessions.
4. CAN ALL INK COLORS BE REMOVED?
With the advancements in lasers, it is possible to remove most ink colors, but the color of the ink will definitely play a big part of how effective the laser treatments will be.
Most people are surprised to learn that darker ink takes fewer sessions to break down than lighter ones. It seems like it would be the opposite right? If you stop and think about the fact that the laser is essentially light being amplified, it makes sense that black ink, like other black surfaces absorbs the most light. Which means that the laser will be most effective on black. Think about when you are in the sun wearing a black shirt- the heat of the sun is absorbed more by black.
Lighter colored tattoos are the opposite- they are reflective. The light from the laser bounces off of lighter colors therefore making the laser less effective. When less light is absorbed, the ink is not broken down as much.
Here is an overview of tattoo ink colors and their level of difficulty to remove with a laser.
Black- Black is the most common tattoo color, and by far the easiest to remove.
Blue- The darker the shade of blue, the easier it is to remove. Lighter shades of blue can be much more difficult.
Green- Green can be more challenging than black and blue, but again…the darker shades of green are easier than lighter shades of green.
Red- Red is a notoriously difficult color to remove. Again, the shade of red affects the difficulty.
Orange- Orange is one of the most difficult colors to remove. Bright orange in particular will not fade easily.
Yellow- Like orange, yellow is a bright color and also one of the most difficult to remove.
Pink- Many people consider pink to be one of the most difficult colors to remove. The skin tone and location of the tattoo affect the efficacy also, but no matter what…pink is challenging.
White- If you think back to the fact that black absorbs the light and black reflects it, you will understand why white is often considered to be the most difficult color to remove.
I have personal experience with having a colored tattoo removed, and it has definitely been a challenge to remove. The tattoo was a colored portrait of Ted Mosby from the show “How I Met Your Mother.” Believe it or not, back in 2016 I was literally planning to do my whole back in characters from the show. Needless to say, I changed my mind.
The tattoo was large and covered most of my back shoulder, and had a LOT of blue ink. The tattoo was done by Cecil Porter who is an awesome human being and the tattoo was very well-done, like I said I just changed my mind about my overall plan. (damn…making tattoo errors is a motherfu*king hassle and expensive!!)
So I guess the moral of the story is…think carefully when you choose that ink color!
- THE LOCATION OF YOUR TATTOO AFFECTS HOW QUICKLY IT FADES
This is really interesting and something that most people don’t think about in terms of removal. The parts of the body with the most blood circulation are where tattoos will fade the fastest.
Areas with better circulation like the head and neck require fewer treatments than an extremity like a hand or foot. Areas close to the heart like your torso will fade faster.
Arms and legs take longer to fade- especially hands, feet, wrists, and ankles. The healing time after laser will also be slower in areas with less circulation.
- CHOOSE A REPUTABLE FACILITY
Just like you should choose your artist wisely, you should also be very particular about where you go to have laser removal done. The laser removal industry has grown significantly, and it seems like there are more and more places offering tattoo removal services.
There are many people that believe the procedure should be done by a board certified dermatologist or a physician with formal laser training. I know that there are also specialized facilities that also have very qualified, well-trained techician performing the treatment. I recommend doing your research to help you find a reputable provider.
I also reccomend choosing a facility that invests in quality equipment. Laser systems get more advanced every few years, it’s important that you are being treated with a quality laser. Be sure to ask what type of equipment they use and again… do your research.
- LASER TATTOO REMOVAL IS PAINFUL
I’ve been under the needle for hundreds of hours and it can get pretty uncomfortable. I could never lie to you guys about this, for me laser removal is far more painful that getting a tattoo. I’d say 10 times.The laser procedure requires the use of an extremely hot laser.
Some people say the experience is similar to the pain of getting the tattoo. For me, that wasn’t the case. The laser removal was far more painful. Just like tattooing, the amount of pain varies and everyone’s experience will vary. Expect some level of pain going into it. The good news is that the procedure is incredibly quick.
There can also be some pain and discomfort after the lasering. It can be similar to the feeling after getting a burn or blister. I’ve had some larger tattoos removed that have been pretty painful while the area heals. I’ve had some blistering that was pretty painful, but fortunately with proper after care, the area healed fine.
There are a variety of techniques to reduce the discomfort of laser removal. Numbing creams, cold air machines, injectible anesthetics, and ice packs are ways that the provider can reduce the level of pain and discomfort. I’ve had removal done with and without Lidocaine and having Lidocaine was an absolute and utter game-changer…especially for my larger tattoos.
8. HEALING AFTER REMOVAL ISN’T ALWAYS EASY
Proper aftercare is very important after laser removal. Just like after getting a tattoo, you will need to follow the aftercare instructions following your session.
The first stage of healing is called “frosting” because it turns the lasered area white. This state only lasts a few minutes. The “frosting” is caused by small gas bubbles which rise to the surface of your skin after laser removal. This stage is nothing to worry about, and doesn’t last long.
The next stage is where you can expect some pain, discomfort and possibly blistering and/or scabbing. Blistering is common and if you get blistering, don’t be overly concerned. It is just your body trying to heal itself. The blisters will go away. It is very important NOT to pick at the blisters to prevent scarring and infections. Be sure you keep the area covered for the first few days after treatment. Also, apply a healing ointment such as Aquaphor until the treated area is fully healed.
If you experience too much discomfort while healing, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol), but steer away from ibuprofen as it increases the chance of bleeding, scarring, and bruising.
9. DISCOLORATION AND SCARRING ARE POSSIBLE
You might notice some discoloration which in many cases is temporary. Hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation are other potential side effects.
Hyperpigmentation is a darkening of the skin. The laser’s purses of light waves can affect the natural color of your skin. With hyperpigmentation, the body overproduces melanin in reactionto the laser treatment. In most cases, the skin will return to its natural color within 6 months to a year after your last laser treatment. But it is possible for the hyperpigmentation to be permenant. People with middle to darker skin tones have a greater risk for pigmentation changes.
Hypopigmentation is a lightening of the skin’s natural color. This means that the skin that is treated is paler than the skin surrounding it. Hypopigmentation happens when the body underproduces melanin in reaction to the laser treatment. It is very important to avoid sun exposure during the healing process.
Scarring is also a possibility after laser removal. Given the advanced laser divices used nowadays, scarring is not very common. It is however important that your technitian is very skilled, and that you follow aftercare instuctions to reduce chances of scarring. If it does happen, it is usually minimal. It’s important to drink plenty of water, get plenty of rest, and do your best to boose your immune system
10. TATTOOING OVER SKIN THAT HAS BEEN LASERED
There are instances where someone wants to get rid of a tattoo, but might want to tattoo over the skin that was lasered. I have done this a couple of times, and although it was a lengthy process, it is possible to achieve great results.
Like me, many people actually have a tattoo removed because they want a different tattoo, or want to open up space for additional tattoos down the road. Doing a cover-up is much easier if the tattoo has undergone laser removal.
For the most part, it is not a problem to tattoo over skin that has been treated with laser removal. (after proper healing is complete). The exception would be if any scarring occurs after the laser treatment. Again, scarring isn’t very common. It’s not entirely imposible to tattoo over scarring, but it can be difficult. Tattooing over an uneven surface and different skin texture makes it challenging. Also, the ink won’t distribute as it normally would.
If you decide to get a tattoo over a scar, be aware that the results might not be what you hoped for. It’s really important to choose an experienced artist, and one who has experience working on scar tissue.
There are a lot of things to consider and know before getting laser tattoo removal. But if you have outgrown your tattoo for whatever reason, it is a safe and effective method for removing those unwanted tattoos.
You might also be interested in this post Tattoo Aftercare- My Personal Do’s and Don’ts
Have you had laser tattoo removal or are you considering it? I’d love to hear about any thoughts or experiences you’ve had in the comments below. Thanks for reading.
Great post Jordan! You really covered the important areas of topic for Lasers. Will definitely send folks to this post if someone is interested so they can learn!
Thanks Alex- glad you liked the article and appreciate you referring others to it.