Tattoos have been commonplace for thousands of years — from Ancient Egypt to the Philippines, native peoples have long been permanently marking their bodies. A recent Harris Poll found that nearly 30% of Americans have gotten themselves inked at least once.
But tattoo regret is also real. In 2016, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found that laser tattoo removal was among the most rapidly growing non-surgical office procedures — close to 53,000 tattoo removals were performed last year alone. The procedure is becoming more and more common, but does it work? And does it hurt? If you want a tattoo gone, how effective is the procedure, and how long does it take? Want to see a laser tattoo removal procedure? We’ll get you all the answers — and a video of the process!
The Science of Removing Tattoos
Removing a tattoo with a laser requires an in-office procedure using a Q-switch laser, which breaks up tattoo ink within the skin. The procedure is dependent on the body’s lymphatic system, which absorbs the ink molecules and removes them from our body. To initiate this process, lasers target the colors in the tattoo ink.
Inside the skin, there are molecules called chromophores, which are responsible for color. These chromophores each absorb different frequencies of light, then convert the light into heat. When laser light hits the skin, the laser’s heat destroys the chromophore.
To break up the ink particle, thermal expansion must take place in a process called phytothermolysis — the same process used in laser hair removal. A laser initiates this expansion, but it must zap the particle in just the right way that only half of it heats. When half remains cool, the two opposing forces force the ink particles apart.
Naturally, these types of lasers must be extremely precise, which is why they are ultra-short pulse lasers. To minimize pain and damage to the skin, pulses of light must be very short and incredibly fast — these lasers work on scales of picoseconds which is a trillionth of a second — which also makes them incredibly hot.
Dr. Asher Milgrom, founder of AMA Skincare in Beverly Hills, California, explains: “Q-switched lasers can be same frequency as a regular laser, but the energy burst is much, much shorter. Instead of being measured in thousandths of a second, it’s measured in millionths of a second. So the energy is absorbed so quickly by the pigment that there’s not enough time for a chemical interaction. It actually causes an acoustic pulse through the pigment, which shatters the pigment like you’re shattering glass with sound.”
Once the area has been zapped with a laser, the body’s immune system works to rid itself of the pigment fragments. For tattoos that feature more than one color of ink, several lasers at different frequencies must be used to target the different hues. This can be one of the reasons that tattoo removal takes several sessions.
How Effective is Laser Tattoo Removal?
The short answer is that laser tattoo removal can be very effective. But how effective a laser tattoo removal procedure is dependent on several variables.
Color: Black tattoos, which absorb all colors of light in the visible spectrum, react well to laser treatment. Red and green tattoo inks typically have variable results, whereas orange and yellow inks are considered the most difficult colors to remove. These results arerelated to the absorption and scattering qualities of the different colors, and their contrast with skin color.
Age: Tattoos fade over time as cells in the dermis are reproduced and replaced. If your tattoo is older, and your skin has already, naturally replaced many of your ink-filled skin cells, removal will take less time.
Location: The disposal of your color-filled cells is dependent on the speed with which your bloodstream carries these ink-filled particles away and into the lymphatic system. Therefore, ease of removal often depends on how far away the tattoo is from your heart.
Skin Tone: Lasers target melanin and pigment within our skin cells, so they work best on people whose skin highly contrasts the ink of their tattoo. If the laser cannot distinguish between the ink and skin tone, it may inadvertently damage healthy blank cells.
Tattooing Method: If you were inked by a pro, your tattoo may, unfortunately, be moredifficult to remove. This because professional equipment injects ink more deeply into your skin; the type of ink used can be a factor as well.
Results will also depend on your general health, the experience of your doctor, the type of laser tey use, and your diligence with post-procedure care. Depending on a combination of these factors, your tattoo may be easy to remove, or it may just fade slightly over the course of multiple laser sessions.
You’re Committed to Laser Tattoo Removal. Now What?
First, it’s important to manage your expectations about how well the procedure will work for you. Everyone experiences different time frames and levels of effectiveness. Remember that the process may seem slow in the beginning, which few visible results, but your doctor will be careful to adjust laser settings to minimize skin damage. The bottom line is, you won’t know how well laser removal works for you until you start the process. For some, their entire tattoo may disappear; for others, they are able to fade a part of their old tattoo enough to cover it up with a new design.
Regardless of how effective the procedure inevitably is, it will take a while to really seeyour results. Sure, the laser session itself will only last a few minutes, but you’ll need to wait between 4 and 6 weeks between each session to see your doctor again. This is because the lymphatic system needs time to do its work removing the targeted cells. A doctor will most likely tell you that your tattoo can be completely faded in 6 to 10 sessions, but keep in mind that can take over a year!
As for pain levels, laser tattoo removal isn’t a comfortable process. Know beforehand how much pain you can handle, and talk to your doctor about different ways of managing it. You may want to utilize local anesthetics, cold air, or other numbing agents such as lidocaine.
Before and After: How to Prep & Recovery Tips
Before any tattoo removal process, you’ll first consult with your doctor, so make sure to communicate your needs. Make a list before your appointment of all the relevant questions you have, and be sure to ask your doctor about their experience with tattoos and the types of laser(s) the office uses. Be sure you discuss your medical history and pain management options.
Your doctor will want to make sure your skin is as pale as possible before the procedure, as this stark contrast between skin and ink is what makes the procedure effective. So, if you can, schedule your laser tattoo removal procedure during winter months, and avoid sun exposure prior to treatment.
After-care is incredibly important in the tattoo removal process. If you don’t follow your doctor’s instructions, you could experience permanent scarring. For starters, keep the treated area clean and dry, and moisturize the tattooed skin to avoid itchiness during healing. Blisters are normal, but need to be cared for properly. Most importantly, leave scabs alone and make sure to wear SPF and stay out of the sun!
As for side effects, it’s important to know that some people do have adverse reactions to laser tattoo removal. The most common side effects are a loss of skin color, scarring, and extreme blistering, but these are generally temporary and should go away within weeks.
Infection, burns, and a change in your skin’s texture could occur, and you may experienceblisters, pinpoint bleeding, bruising, swelling, redness, and raising near the tattoo that’s being removed. Temporary darkening or lightening of the skin (hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation) can occur, but should go away within a year. If the ink in your tattoo was formulated with titanium dioxide, it may oxidize and darken upon exposure to the laser, but that can be corrected with additional treatments. As always, if you’re concerned about what you see on your skin following treatment, consult your doctor.
Follow your doctor’s recovery instructions, and you should be able to get the tattoo removal results you’re looking for!