While tattoos were once considered permanent, new technology — including laser tattoo removal — has made it possible to get rid of an unwanted design. Laser removal uses light pulses to break up color pigments. These are then removed by the body’s immune system. It usually takes several laser treatments to completely remove a tattoo.
Laser tattoo removal is generally performed by a dermatologist, or medical doctor specializing in skin care. Each session, or treatment, is usually short in length. Most tattoos need several sessions to ensure complete removal. Some preparation is needed before each treatment. During the procedure, the patient is given protective eyewear and, possibly, some pain medication.
The doctor then points the laser at the tattoo. Light pulses go through the top of layer of skin to reach the ink below its surface. These pulses break up the ink pigment. Over the next few weeks the patient’s immune system will carry away the ink that has been degraded.
Black ink is the easiest to remove since black absorbs all of the colors that make up light. Different ink colors, such as red or green, need specific colors of laser light pulses to ensure complete tattoo removal. The tattoo will not be removed during one treatment. Instead, the tattoo will get lighter and lighter after each session, until it is gone.
Side effects include pain, reported to feel like stinging or scratching, during each treatment. Redness, swelling, and mild pain after treatments are also possible. Issues that are rare but can still occur include scarring, and either a lightening or darkening of the skin compared to the patient’s natural skin color.
Patients with skin color that is in strong contrast the colors of the tattoo ink make the best candidates for laser removal of a tattoo. This is because higher contrast makes it easier for the laser to target the tattoo ink. Patients with skin color that is close to the color of the ink may need more treatments to completely remove a tattoo.
Laser tattoo removal is costly compared to other methods of tattoo removal. Although it is a medical procedure, it is considered an elective cosmetic treatment. These are generally not covered by health insurance. Patients can discuss with their doctors the time and cost needed to remove a tattoo prior to beginning treatment.
Alternatives to laser tattoo removal once included dermabrasion, or sanding off layers of skin, and simply cutting out a tattoo. Creams are available that can remove layers of skin to lighten a tattoo. Since tattoo ink is beneath the top layer of skin, this method is generally less successful than using a laser. Laser treatments are currently the most common method of laser tattoo removal.