Tattoos are a great idea. At the time. But while the reasons for a tattoo might change over the next day, year, or decade, the tattoo itself doesn’t. It’s estimated that 25% of people who get a tattoo come to regret it.
Whether you’re looking to diminish a tattoo before covering it up with another, or want the thing gone forever, it’ll take a bit more work to undo your ink than it did to apply it. And it’ll take a laser. Here’s what you need to know about tattoo removal.
Not All Lasers Are Alike
The most effective lasers for tattoo removal are picosecond Q-switched Nd:YAG lasers. That’s quite a bit to take in, so let’s look at what it all means.
Picosecond lasers operate at especially high frequencies, much higher than those of their cousins, nanosecond lasers. This lets them penetrate the skin down to where your tattoo’s pigment resides, and happens to be a useful frequency for breaking ink molecules into smaller pieces that your immune system can absorb.
Q-switching allows a laser to operate as a series of pulses rather than as a continuous stream of light. These pulses are more intense than a steady stream would be, so they achieve more in less time. And because your skin isn’t constantly exposed to the laser, the healthy tissue around your tattoo isn’t as subject to damage, and heals much faster than it otherwise would.
Nd refers to neodymium; YAG stands for yttrium aluminium garnet. Neodymium and yttrium are rare earths. Aluminium you’ve heard of, and garnet is a crystal (crystals are central to lasers: the first laser was built around a ruby).
The details aren’t as important as the distinction here. Lasers are commonly used to treat skin conditions, and different kinds of laser specialize in treating different problems. You want a doctor who has access to the right machine for your tattoo removal.
Some clinics or spas might advertise tattoo removal without having the right equipment for the job. You might save some money at such places, but at the cost of long-term scarring and pigmentation problems. You’ve already taken steps to correct one mistake: don’t make another one by cheaping out on tattoo removal.
Different Tattoos Present Different Challenges
Removing a tattoo, just like getting one, depends on a number of baseline factors.
A tattoo created by a professional will likely resist removal more stubbornly than one drawn on you by an amateur. The equipment used by professional tattoo artists tends to drive ink farther below the surface than that used by amateurs, and professionals may create tattoo elements at a variety of depths.
Darker skin features more melanin, which absorbs light. This has some implications for laser tattoo removal: melanin in darker-toned skin can diminish a laser’s strength somewhat by absorbing some of its energy. Q-switching and other laser-pulsing technologies can go a long way toward minimizing this loss of energy, as can the higher frequency produced by picosecond lasers.
By the same token, black-ink tattoos are easier to remove than colorful ones. Black ink absorbs the right amount of a standard laser’s energy for the treatment to work. Different-colored ink demands lasers tuned to different frequencies, or wavelengths, to be effective.
Your tattoo’s location can make a difference, too. Because your body’s immune system is tasked with carrying away the bits of ink that remain after laser treatment, areas with more robust blood circulation tend to heal more quickly and completely. Tattoos near your wrists or ankles may be particularly stubborn and slow to fade.
Tattoo Removal Can be Expensive
There’s no way to avoid it: tattoo removal is expensive. Almost certainly many times more expensive than your original tattoo. The reasons are down to training and equipment.
In most jurisdictions, health clubs, spas, salons, and other companies offering light cosmetic therapies are not allowed to offer laser tattoo removal. It takes a licensed doctor, and one trained on laser equipment, at that.
That might not stop such operations from offering tattoo removal without the laser. And that could be far more trouble than it’s worth. Some day spas, for instance, offer types of light therapy that superficially resemble lasers. Some even promise to reduce the appearance of surface pigmentation on clients’ skin. And they might well do so. But such procedures have absolutely nothing to do with the ink in your tattoo, and any attempt to use them as such is probably a misuse of equipment designed for something else entirely. The best you can hope for in these situations is to lose a bit of money and still have your tattoo to show for it.
Costs of laser machines vary; the important thing to remember is that they’re sunk costs for your doctor, and tend to specialize in the treatment of a relatively limited range of issues. A tattooing rig isn’t cheap, but a proper laser is far more expensive.
What to Expect
If you’re ready to have your tattoos removed, here are some things to consider as you plan your treatment and prepare for a bit of recovery time.
Tattoo removal doesn’t happen in one sitting. The lasers we recommend here, in the hands of a capable doctor, can typically yield nearly perfect results—roughly 90% of the way toward complete removal—within six sessions or fewer. But, as one of the experts at UbiqiHealth says, this greatly depends on the size of the tattoo itself, the type and quantity of ink used, skin colour, etc.
If you’re lucky—if your doctor has the very latest equipment, and the nature and location of your tattoo is ideal—you may see acceptable results more quickly. But this is a good time to think realistically, maybe a bit conservatively, about your prospects.
In any case, you’ll almost certainly see significant fading after one session. After all, that’s when the greatest concentration of ink is available as a target. As time goes on, remaining ink molecules will be stacked less densely and spaced farther apart. You’ll continue to see progress, but the rate of progress will slow.
There will be some pain, roughly similar to what you experienced while getting the tattoo in the first place. While laser tattoo removal isn’t as physically damaging as having a needle popped into your skin, it does involve quite a bit of heat, albeit in tiny doses. Your doctor may numb the affected area with local anesthetic or ice.
Tattoo removal carries a slight risk of scarring and pigmentation issues (which can be expressed as either a lightening or a darkening of the affected area). The same issues that can inhibit your tattoo removal’s success can invite a higher risk of these side effects: larger tattoos, colourful tattoos, and darker skin tones.
After each treatment, you should count on three days to a week of redness and scabbing, which again represents a milder case of what you experienced after getting your original tattoo. As with new tattoos, you’ll want to keep the treated area away from sunlight, and be sure that it is absolutely clean at all times.
Your doctor may offer a more intensive round of post-treatment care, involving light therapy and medicated creams. These aren’t absolutely necessary in most cases, though your doctor may have reasons to believe that your case could benefit strongly from something beyond simple dressing and sunscreen.
If you’re still in the middle of your removal regimen, you should count on getting laser treatment every six to eight weeks. Anything more frequent is probably a huge warning sign: whoever offers you an accelerated treatment schedule may well be using an underpowered laser or even a non-laser treatment that could leave you poorer but still inked.
Above all, use everything you’ve learned here to have a full, frank discussion with any doctor offering to remove your tattoos. Your doctor should be able to speak to the training they’ve received and the equipment they’ll be using, and should be able to assess your particular situation honestly, with no extraordinary promises.