Laser tattoo removal has grown in popularity in recent years. It's been tried, tested and found to be a safe and effective cosmetic procedure... supposedly. It's great in theory, but if you haven't seen laser tattoo removal first-hand, it can be hard to wrap your mind around how ink that's been injected deeply below the surface of the skin can be burned out without burning the skin along with it.
If you're currently a skeptic, but curious if laser tattoo removal might work for you, understanding the process and seeing real results may help make you a believer.
How Does Laser Tattoo Removal Work?
Laser tattoo removal is a slow, relatively cyclical process that takes time and patience. In fact, it can take up to a year or more to fully remove some tattoos. There are many stages along the way, but the process always begins with a consultation.
Your Laser Tattoo Removal Consultation
When you go in for a laser tattoo removal consultation, a technician will measure your tattoo and make note of certain characteristics for the doctor--namely, what colors are in your tattoo, how old it is, whether or not you've had previous treatments, and where the tattoo is located on your body. Why do these things matter? When it comes to previous treatments, the answer is fairly obvious: You'll need fewer sessions to finish removing your tattoo, and you can likely tolerate more intense laser settings initially than if you'd never had laser tattoo removal before. Location, age and the colors in your tattoo will also play roles in how long it takes to remove your tattoo.
Location's Effect on the Tattoo Removal Process
Laser tattoo removal is a cyclical process:
- A physician lasers your tattoo, sending energy into your skin that breaks up the ink molecules that comprise your tattoo.
- Your lymphatic system absorbs the broken-up ink molecules and clears them from your body over a 4 to 6 week period.
- You go back for the next round of lasering, more ink is broken up, and so on until there's no trace of your tattoo or it's light enough to get a successful cover-up tattoo.
Your bloodstream, and subsequently your heart, play a big role in step 2. Your bloodstream carries the particles the laser's broken up away from the source and towards your lymphatic system, which is a bit like your local dump; it gets the trash out of your body, including any broken-up ink particles your bloodstream drops off.
Your heart is the epicenter where all of your blood vessels convene, and it's constantly pumping blood through your veins and helping move along broken-up ink particles after a laser tattoo removal treatment. The closer your tattoo is to your hard-working heart, the more quickly it can typically be removed. Tattoos on the hands and feet usually take much longer than tattoos on other parts of the body, and leg tattoos may also require more sessions than tattoos on the core of your body.
The colors in your tattoo are significant because they'll impact which settings and hand pieces are needed during the laser tattoo removal process. All-black tattoos require one adapter, and they can often be removed more quickly than tattoos containing colored ink. Color tattoos have to be treated in stages, and each set of colors requires a different adapter when it's being treated.
In the initial rounds (usually up to 4 or 5), typically only the black parts of your tattoo will be treated. Next, the physician will make some adjustments to the laser so s/he can treat the red and yellow parts of your tattoo. Finally, around your 6th or 7th session, the physician will give you a different type of protective eyewear, change the laser's hand piece, and treat the greens and blues in your tattoo. These colors are the most likely to cause blistering, but it should subside within 24-48 hours, so don't be frightened if it happens to you.
The Significance of Your Tattoo's Age
Tattoos naturally fade with time, but maybe not for the reason you think. The outer layer of your skin, called the epidermis, sheds skin cells regularly. That has little impact on your tattoo, though, because the ink was injected more deeply, into the dermis below the epidermis. Even though cells from that layer don't continuously slough off the way epidermis cells do, there's still a constant renewal process happening. Old skin cells containing tattoo ink die, and they're replaced by healthy, pure, plain new cells. As those microscopic plain dots crop up through the area where you're tattooed, the visual effect is that your tattoo is fading. (To learn more about how the skin holds ink over time, read our A Marriage of Tattoo Ink & Skin post.)
Fading is a good thing when it comes to laser tattoo removal. If your tattoo is old and many of the ink-filled cells have already been replaced with blank ones, it will take less time to remove your tattoo. For instance, a solid-black, 10-year-old tattoo is likely to require fewer laser tattoo removal sessions than a 2-year-old multi-color tattoo. The old tattoo may take 7-10 sessions compared to the average 8-12 required for many newer tattoos, multi-color tattoos, and tattoos on your extremities. If you have an old amateur tattoo (which likely wasn't inked as deeply as it would have been if done by a pro) that's all black and close to your heart, you may even be one of the more unusual cases that requires just a few sessions to completely remove a tattoo.
After having your consultation, you'll meet with the doctor. S/he may ask you for more information about your tattoo, such as whether or not it was done by a professional and if you're prone to scarring. It's particularly important to tell the physician if you're prone to keloid scarring. Unfortunately, a tendency towards developing keloids at trauma sites may be an instant disqualifier, but you should talk to the doctor about it before giving up on laser tattoo removal if you're prone to them.
The doctor will also take note of your skin tone, since the initial laser settings s/he uses may need to reduced to prevent tissue damage if you have a darker complexion. Even for those with fair skin, physicians start the process slowly, beginning with "gentler" settings to see how the skin responds to being lasered. That's one reason why you may not see significant changes between your first and second, and sometimes second and third, treatments. The physician will ramp up the intensity of the laser throughout your treatments after confirming that your skin tolerated the last setting well.
Once you've had a chance to ask the physician any questions you have and learn more about the process, s/he will perform your first treatment. You'll likely be given a cooling device that helps minimize pain during lasering, so you can hold it where you need it most during the procedure. You'll also be handed a special pair of goggles to wear that will protect your eyes while the laser's running. Once you and your physician have your goggles on, your treatment can begin.
Does Laser Tattoo Removal Hurt?
If you're wondering about laser tattoo removal pain, the bottom line is that it won't feel particularly good. Your physician should do a test spot to give you an idea of how having your tattoo lasered will feel. The test will help you brace yourself for the full-on lasering coming next. You may want to squeeze a stress ball or a friend's hand when the physician gets going. If your pain threshold is really low, you may also want to ask to have a lidocaine-based cream applied when you arrive so that you'll be a bit numb by the time you're lasered. However you plan to handle the pain, take comfort in the fact that it won't last long (unless your tattoo is massive) and that you can ask your physician to pause at any time. There's no shame in asking for a break if the pain's too intense for you.
For whatever it's worth, most people say they wish the pain of getting a tattoo was as short-lived as the pain of having one removed.
Laser Tattoo Removal Aftercare
Occasionally, doctors will cover a client's tattoo with a bandage after their first treatment, since the first time is typically the worst time and a bandage can feel comforting and protective. It's really best for you to let your skin breathe after having a laser tattoo removal treatment, though. Keep your skin clean, preferably using an antibacterial soap, and soothe it with laser tattoo removal aftercare balm or another product rich with vitamin E, which is a super healer. Also follow any other special instructions your physician gives you at the end of your first treatment.
Will Laser Tattoo Removal Work for You?
Although people do occasionally have adverse reactions to laser tattoo removal that prevent them from proceeding with treatments, such as hypopigmentation or extreme blistering, more people than not tolerate the process well. If you try it and you keep going back, the odds are good that you'll see firsthand that laser tattoo removal does work.
There are a lot of factors involved; on top of the aforementioned things like skin tone, the age of your tattoo, and where it's located on your body, your doctor, the laser, and even your general health all play roles in the success of your treatments. If you find a doctor who comes highly recommended and who uses a top-of-the-line machine like the RevLite SI Q-switched Nd:YAG laser used at The Studio at Painful Pleasures, and if you stick with the program and have your treatments on schedule every 4 to 6 weeks, within a year the skin where you currently have a tattoo should be as plain, smooth and unblemished as if you'd never been tattooed.
Still not a believer? Check out these sample laser tattoo removal before and after photos of real people who have had their tattoos removed:
Visit The Studio at Painful Pleasures' website to see more photos like these, learn about the laser tattoo removal cost factor, and watch educational videos about laser tattoo removal, like the video below, in which The Studio's own Dr. Briggs explains the laser tattoo removal process.