What You Need to Know About Tattoo Removal

From ancient symbolism to the quirky and avant-garde, tattoos have been a special method of self expression for hundreds of years.

They can be beautiful, sentimental, or a piece of one-of-a-kind artwork, but one thing all tattoos have in common are that they are permanent.

Or are they?

If you are the owner of a tattoo that you are not so fond of anymore, you may be wondering what can be done about it.

And you’re not alone.

According to a Harris poll taken in 2015, around 23% of people with tattoos say they regret having gotten it.

Luckily, today there are ways to remove a tattoo.

And while tattoos aren’t the easiest things to remove, you do have options for your unwanted ink.

But there are a few things you should know before you commit to getting rid of your tattoo.

Ways To Remove a Tattoo

As a form of body art that is meant to be with you for life, tattoos are done in such a way that they can’t be simply washed or scrubbed away.

In case you were too busy clenching your teeth from the pain to think about it, your tattoo was deposited deep into your skin through a fast moving needle. As this needle pulses up and down, it is actually injecting pigment into the second, deeper layer of skin called the dermis.

Tattoo artist working on a new tattoo for customer

You may have heard of ointments or other home treatments for vanishing a tattoo, but the reality is that you can’t access ink that is in the dermis in order to dissolve it. You will need to seek professional treatment. 

Here are some of the methods you will come across for getting rid of a tattoo: 

Creams

You may be hoping for a quick and easy fix, especially if your tattoo is relatively new. But if you are thinking about trying a topical tattoo removal cream you found online, you probably want to reconsider. 

The Food and Drug Administration oversees both the inks used for tattoos and the laser devices that are commonly used to remove them. But the FDA currently has not reviewed any type of home use products for removing tattoos, and there is no evidence that these products work. Additionally, the FDA warns that some of these unregulated products may cause injury and unwanted changes to the skin.

Dermabrasion

You can think of dermabrasion as a type of extreme exfoliation. It’s commonly used as a cosmetic resurfacing treatment to produce smoother and younger looking skin. But it can also be used as a method for removing certain tattoos.

It works by sanding down the top layers of skin with a quick-spinning device. It must be performed by a trained surgeon, and although it is an outpatient procedure, it does require a few weeks of recovery time.

Many people may want to consider dermabrasion for tattoo removal because it may cost less than some other methods. However, you will need to have a consultation with an experienced doctor who performs dermabrasion on tattoos to see if your skin type and ink would be a good candidate for this type of removal.

Excision

Perhaps the quickest method for removing a tattoo is surgical excision. This may also be the most extreme, however. You will have to utilize at least local anesthetic, and may possibly even be put under general anesthetic before going under the knife.

Once the anesthesia has been administered, the surgeon will simply cut out the area of skin that contains the tattoo. The skin around this section is then stitched together to close the wound.

The benefit of this type of removal is that you are guaranteed that the tattoo will be gone completely. Compare this to other methods, where there is a possibility that you will still see a slightly discolored area of skin after the ink has been removed. 

However, because the skin is cut with a scalpel to excise the tattoo, you will definitely be left with a scar. You will need to decide if having a surgical scar is preferable to the possibility that you might still see traces of your old tattoo.

Keep in mind also that this method is really only possible for very small tattoos, as you will need to have enough skin surrounding the tattoo for the surgeon to sew together. The area of the body where the tattoo is located will be a factor as well.

While you will have the tattoo gone in one procedure, keep in mind that you will have to care for a surgical wound for days afterward. And with any type of surgery, there is some added risk of infection.

Unidentified doctor with a scalpel

Laser Tattoo Removal

You will probably want to primarily consider laser tattoo removal, as it is the most commonly used method today. This is because it is quite effective and safe when performed by a trained physician. According to the FDA, it has also been successfully used to remove tattoos for over 20 years.

The ink used in tattoos is resilient and not easily disturbed. If it was not so potent, it would have already been absorbed by your body or broken down. Your body knows that the ink is a foreign substance, but is not able to move it on its own.

This is why a very powerful laser must to be used to break down tattoo ink. Stronger than the lasers used for hair removal, an ultra-short pulse laser is the tool for separating the ink from your skin. Specific wavelengths are chosen to target different colored pigments. 

The short laser bursts are effective because they are very hot. Essentially, the laser heats the ink to the point that it breaks apart into smaller pieces. One the ink has been broken up, your bloodstream can then carry it away to your liver to be detoxed from your body.

Infographic on laser tattoo removal and its effects on the skin

Things To Consider

Now that you know what each option entails, you may be eager to make an appointment and say goodbye to your ink for good. But there are several other things you need to know about before you proceed.

1. It Takes Several Sessions

Even with the best technician on the smallest tattoo, your removal will not be one and done.

How many times will you have to will you have to go back, you ask?

While it depends on the size and type of tattoo, the average estimate is six to twelve sessions for laser removals.

The same typically goes for dermabrasion removal. The only type of removal that can be done in one sitting is surgical excision.

It could be less, it could be more if your tattoo is extremely large or elaborate. The bottom line is, plan for more than one session.

2. It Takes A Long Time

So now you’re probably wondering, how long will it be before this tattoo disappears?

Well, not only does it take several sessions to complete a tattoo removal, but you cannot schedule the laser or dermabrasion sessions back to back. You will need to let your body rest and heal.

If you opt for laser treatment, it is less harsh on your skin than dermabrasion. But the minimum recommended recovery period between laser sessions is six weeks. And if you have a darker complexion, more time is recommended. In fact, some more conservative technicians may say it’s better to wait up to three months between laser treatments, just to be safe.

So your next question may be:

Best case scenario, when can I expect to no longer see my tattoo?

Even if your particular tattoo is one of the easier types to remove, you are still looking at several months to a year before the ink is completely gone.

No, there is no way that tattoo will be gone before your sister’s wedding next month.

3. Lighter Colored Tattoos Are Harder to Remove

Surprisingly, black ink is the most responsive to laser treatment. The darkest colors absorb more of the intense laser light, making them disappear much faster. Very light colors will require more treatments because they reflect more laser light than they absorb.

Keep this in mind when trying to determine how long it will take to remove your particular tattoo.

4. It Hurts

While everyone’s ability to handle pain varies, don’t be naive about the pain that comes with lasering ink out of your dermis or peeling away several layers of skin with dermabrasion. At the very least you will be uncomfortable during and for some time after any procedure. 

It may, in fact, be just as painful as getting a tattoo in the first place. Consider how hard it was for you to sit through the process of getting your tattoo. Can you take that pain again? Be prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.

And keep in mind that you may have soreness in between sessions. You will need to care for and be gentle with the area during the days immediately following the treatment.

5. You May Scar

Even if you don’t opt for surgical tattoo removal, you may still end up with a permanent mark on your skin.

An unlikely but possible outcome of removing a tattoo via laser or dermabrasion is scarring of the area. This is why it is important to give yourself plenty of healing time between sessions and to follow the directions for caring for the treated area. 

Remember that your tattoo is being removed by applying extreme levels of heat or abrasion to your skin, and the result is similar to a burn. Be gentle with your skin to keep the risk of scars low.

6. There May Be Side Effects

Tattoo removal is overall a very safe option when performed by a licensed and qualified doctor. 

However, it is not without risk of a few, typically minor side effects:

  • Changes in melanin production. This includes both lightening of the area (hypopigmentation) and darkening of the area (hyperpigmentation). Luckily if either occurs it is usually temporary and will go back to normal after several months.
  • Infection is possible. The area treated will be vulnerable and may be inflamed, swollen, and blistered. Any broken or compromised skin has the potential to become infected. Follow your doctor’s aftercare instructions and this risk will be minimal.
  • Formation of scar tissue. As mentioned before, scarring is a potential result of all removal methods. And unlike the other side effects, scaring is permanent. However, it is extremely rare when getting laser removal, especially if you take care of the skin as it heals. 

7. It May Be Expensive

Costs for tattoo removal vary wildly, and will largely depend on the size and type of tattoo. 

Surgical excision will typically be a minimum of $1,000 for the simplest of cases. 

Laser treatments can be anywhere from $100 to $500 a session. This will increase based on how large and complicated the tattoo design is. And of course, with laser removal you will need several sessions, so keep in mind that you will pay this many times over.

Dermabrasion is probably the cheapest option per session, but it is also has the potential for the least desirable results. And you will have to pay for multiple sessions as well.

Conclusion

So now that you have all the important information about tattoo removal, you should ask yourself a few final questions:

  • Do I really want to get rid of this tattoo or is this just a temporary concern?
  • What are my expectations for how the skin will look after the removal and are they realistic?
  • Am I okay with having a scar or discolored section of skin instead of this tattoo?
  • Would I be better off getting a cover-up or otherwise modifying this tattoo?
  • How much am I willing to spend to get this tattoo removed in a way I am satisfied with?

If you’ve decided that removal is what you want, make an appointment with a board certified plastic surgeon or dermatologist for a consultation and cost estimate. They will guide you on what method will work best for your specific case. And be sure to bring a list of any questions you may have about the process. 

It’s ultimately up to you to make the best choice for you and then enjoy whatever skin you’re in—inked or not.