The Truth About Laser Tattoo Removal
If circumstances have you rethinking your ink, here’s what you need to know about the tattoo removal process from both an expert and patient perspective.
People get tattoos for any number of reasons — be it sentimentality, a special occasion, or just because — and, likewise, people choose to have their tattoos removed for a variety of reasons. Arriving at that decision, however, can be difficult, especially if you don’t understand what the process entails.
The most common way to remove permanent tattoos is with laser treatments. While there are several types of lasers that can be used to remove tattoos, they all rely on the same principle. Lasers employ different wavelengths of light (each with the ability to treat specific pigment colors) that are absorbed by the ink particles in the dermis layer of the skin. The energy causes the pigment to shatter into fragments that can then be digested and excreted via the body’s immune system. Over time, this process lightens the appearance of the tattoo.
With the basics in mind, The AEDITION got the scoop on what to expect from laser tattoo removal from West Hollywood dermatologist Jason Emer, MD, and spoke to three patients about their personal experiences with the treatment.
The Laser Tattoo Removal Process
Let’s get this out of the way: tattoo removal requires patience — and, sometimes, lots of it.
For starters, Dr. Emer warns that “even the smallest black ink tattoos” can take “six to 10 sessions” to remove (though newer technologies, like the PicoLaser, may require fewer). While no two patients are the same, the time it takes for the fractionalized pigment to be excreted after a procedure can last several weeks, which is why patients are encouraged to space laser treatments anywhere from three to 12 weeks apart.
To maximize each session, Dr. Emer suggests patients request a perfluorodecalin (PFD) patch be used. The patch absorbs some of the energy produced by the laser, which, in turn, allows practitioners to pass over the affected area up to four times more than they would be able to without the patch in place. The result: fewer treatments and faster results.
And, while the process of removing an unwanted tattoo can be long and costly (the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery estimates one laser tattoo removal session costs, on average, $463), it doesn’t have to be painful. Dr. Emer says patients can ask for topical numbing creams, nerve blocks, or even sedation to ease any laser-related discomfort.
Laser Tattoo Removal Recovery and Results
As with any laser treatment, the downtime after each session is relatively minimal. Patients are asked to protect the affected area from sun exposure and to avoid submerging it in water for up to two weeks. They are also encouraged not to sweat or rub the site for 72 hours. Additionally, patients may notice scabbing, discoloration, swelling, and/or peeling as the area heals.
The number of sessions it will take to remove a tattoo depends on a variety of factors. The age of the ink and its location on the body, for instance, are key indicators. “The further away from the heart the tattoo is, the longer it will take to remove,” Dr. Emer explains. Whether or not it was done by a professional tattoo artist (amateur tats are typically easier to treat due to their superficial nature) and the colors that were used (green and light blue ink are the hardest to erase) also matters.
Another factor? Skin tone.
“The darker the skin tone, the harder it is to remove a tattoo,” he says. “The laser energy attracts the darker skin as opposed to the tattoo, so those with light skin and dark ink are likely to achieve the most effective results.”
Generally speaking, the tattoo should fade with time (and as additional treatments are performed), but the reality is that some tattoos will never be 100 percent erased. And while technological advances have significantly improved laser results, the potential for “ghosting” (no, not the dating kind) or lightening of the skin where the laser was applied is possible.
So, what’s it like to go through the tattoo removal process? A few patients get candid about their experiences.
Sadie, Los Angeles
Sadie is in the process of removing two tattoos — a small green, white, and yellow daisy on her lower back and a medium-sized butterfly on her hip bone. She commissioned the latter (a pink, yellow, and green design) to cover up an older tattoo but has since decided she wants to remove them all.
I just did my fifth session last week. It's a very long and slow process overall. I wait six weeks in between each session and do both tattoos at the same appointment. I’ve always heard horror stories about the pain of laser tattoo removal — and that it was much worse than laser hair removal, which I have also done — but I have zero pain when the doctor is using the laser on me. If I didn't hear the sound of the machine, I would almost think nothing is being done.
Before the laser itself, a nurse numbs both areas with injections. It's a bunch of tiny needle injections, which can be a little painful, and I do bleed a little. The nurse pokes the area to make sure I don't feel anything before the doctor comes in to start the laser. After a session is done, they bandage the area up and I don't work out for 48 hours. I can shower after 24 hours. I wash the area with unscented antibacterial soap, and, for the first five to seven days, I cover it with a large bandaid. I have been told to use Aquaphor on it and was also given a cortisone cream for the itch, but I rarely use them.
I have only had one large blister after my third session, which went away quickly, and then I have had some tiny ones, which, again, went away fast. I also don't go in the pool for a couple of weeks since it's technically an open wound. Anytime I am in the sun, I use sunscreen on the tattoos being removed.
Lauren*, Long Beach, CA
Lauren got a tattoo on her wrist when she was in her early twenties. She has since become a business owner and regularly presents her products to large groups of people. She found that having visible tattoos affected her confidence, which led her to begin the removal process.
Josh*, Newark, NJ
Josh had a tattoo removed from his upper arm because it was a reminder of a past relationship. His removal process was completed a few months ago, and he is generally pleased with the results.
*Patient names have been changed