Did you know that roughly 40 percent of adult Americans have tattoos? And those who think about getting tattoos bring that number to just over 60 percent? The numbers may shrink as methods like CO2 laser resurfacing become more and more commonplace.
We all have our reasons for wishing our tattoos were gone. Sometimes it’s just that they’re low-quality or old and faded. Perhaps you got a tattoo for someone or something you no longer want to represent. Or maybe you simply don’t like the aesthetic anymore or feel like it doesn’t suit your current life. Whatever your reasons, it’s possible.
While there are many methods, few are as effective and gentle as laser tattoo removal. Instead of surgical procedures that leave stitches and ugly scars, you can let modern technology erase your tattoo in a way that lets your skin restore itself to its former glory. There are multiple types of laser tattoo removal, and they differ a lot. So it’s worth looking closer at CO2 laser resurfacing.
What is CO2 Laser Resurfacing?
A CO2 laser uses carbon dioxide to amplify light and produce a laser beam. It’s an ablative laser treatment, which means it removes the outer layer of the skin. Other forms of lasers pass through the epidermis and affect the ink in the deeper dermis layer. CO2 laser resurfacing is most popular for treating scars, wrinkles, and warts. However, it’s also a method of tattoo removal.
Being an ablative laser, it lets the dermatologist work through the layers of your skin with great precision to remove the inked skin. Like other laser skin treatments, this process stimulates the growth of new, healthy skin. Ablative lasers can be very harsh, but modern CO2 laser resurfacing equipment pulses and scatters the beam. This way, you reduce the risk of heat damage without decreasing the laser’s power.
One of the best types of laser for tattoo removal is a fractional CO2 laser. Instead of a single laser dot, this laser technology uses multiple tiny ones in a pattern. That creates many microscopic holes in the skin, which allow for deeper penetration without heat damage. It can also help stimulate collagen growth. Collagen is a protein that builds and reinforces your body, you can think of it as the glue that holds you together. It’s a crucial element of healthy skin. That is why fractional CO2 laser resurfacing is so popular for cosmetic skin treatments, and it also helps with recovery from the tattoo removal.
How the treatment works
First, the CO2 laser resurfacing expert will clean your tattoo and apply a topical anesthetic. If the tattoo is large, you may get general anesthesia. Then begins the process where he or she slowly guides the laser across your skin to break down the tattoo. Part of the inked skin will burn off, but the main objective is to break the ink particles down into smaller pieces. The laser heats the ink particles and causes them to fragment. Once they’ve dissolved, your body’s macrophages will carry it off to your lymphatic system. From there, they move to your liver which processes them for excretion.
This process is why old tattoos fade and new tattoos often degrade, especially if they’re amateurish. However, most tattoo ink particles are too massive for your white blood cells to handle unless you break them down with a laser.
The benefit of a CO2 laser is that it can handle modern reflective pigments better than a non-ablative laser type since it breaks down both the ink and the tattooed skin. Certain tattoos may fade sufficiently after a single session. However, complete removal requires multiple sessions. Especially if it’s a colorful tattoo or if it’s very deep inside your skin. You must recover between sessions, but you won’t need to stay at a clinic. You can resume your life as usual, as long as you don’t jeopardize your recovery with contaminants or serious skin strain.
Is CO2 Laser Resurfacing Good for Tattoo Removal?
CO2 Laser resurfacing isn’t the most popular method of laser tattoo removal, but it has clear advantages in certain scenarios. Q-switched lasers are generally the best-suited lasers for removing tattoos. Unlike CO2 laser, it’s non-ablative, which means it doesn’t burn the top layer of skin. It passes through the outer layer and dissolves the ink molecules so that your body can dispose of the tattoo.
One scenario where CO2 laser resurfacing is better is when you have a cosmetic tattoo that acts as permanent makeup, for example. Many types of tattoo ink have pigments that react poorly to Q-switched lasers, especially inks that looks like natural skin tones. White tattoo ink that contains zinc oxide or titanium oxide is another common example.
What makes these inks problematic is that they turn black or gray when exposed to a Q-switched laser beam. That means you’ll need several extra sessions to remove the tattoo and restore your skin to normal. It takes more sessions than you’d need for a regular black tattoo. And this gets pricey. Since many studios use this white ink to mix colors, you may not realize that your tattoo contains it.
Ablative methods like CO2 laser resurfacing achieve much faster results when removing this kind of tattoo. Since CO2 lasers remove the dyed skin, the blackening effect doesn’t matter. The downside to this approach is a risk of scarring and a longer recovery period. One to three weeks is a normal time frame.
Compared to methods using surgical excision and skin abrasion, CO2 laser resurfacing is much gentler on the skin and won’t leave big scars. And unlike creams and chemical solutions, it obliterates the tattoo.
The skin tone factor
Whether or not CO2 laser resurfacing is a good method of tattoo removal also depends on your skin tone. Dermatological laser treatments generally work best on lighter skin tones. The risk of discoloration and cell damage is higher if your skin is darker. If you have a medium skin tone, CO2 laser resurfacing is still effective. If your skin is a deep shade of brown, it’s better to try a different method. We recommend that you consult with an expert before deciding on CO2 laser resurfacing.
Health and lifestyle factors
Like surgery and other medical procedures, various conditions can affect the safety and results of CO2 laser resurfacing. Things like drinking and smoking also hamper your body’s ability to heal, so it’s best to stay away for at least two weeks before and two weeks after the treatment. These matters are even more important when you remove a tattoo than when you get one. Many common pharmaceuticals can also introduce complications. For example, blood thinners, acne medication, and aspirin. Even natural supplements can affect it. It’s important that you’re honest with yourself and your tattoo removal provider about all these things.
Also keep in mind that if you’re prone to cold sores, fever blisters, and other herpes symptoms, laser treatments can bring them on. The heat and irritation caused by the laser can induce a breakout. Other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, can also reduce the safety of CO2 laser resurfacing. It will help if you share your medical history and general lifestyle with your provider.
How to Get CO2 Laser Resurfacing
If you live in a big city, there will be multiple clinics that offer CO2 laser resurfacing and similar treatments. However, ones that specialize in CO2 laser tattoo removal aren’t that common. Most CO2 laser resurfacing providers focus on facial skin rejuvenation and birthmark removal. Meanwhile, major laser tattoo removal specialists tend to use Nd: YAG or Q-switched lasers. If you can’t find a specialist, it’s best to contact a few different providers of both types before deciding.
Preparation and recovery
You should book your CO2 laser resurfacing well ahead of time because optimal results require some preparations. Your resurfacing provider will give you instructions and recommendations. The purpose of this stage is to prepare your skin for the treatment to increase its tolerance and minimize side effects. This can span across several weeks.
After the treatment, you’ll probably feel very tired. It’s essential to get plenty of rest for the first week after the procedure. You’ll also need to clean the affected area regularly, up to five times a day. Ordinary soap isn’t the best option, so you’ll need to get a special cleanser based on saline or vinegar. Dressing the spot in clean wraps is also important. For optimal results, you should moisturize often, unless your doctor says otherwise.
Cost of CO2 laser resurfacing
A laser tattoo removal session usually costs between $200 and $500. The price depends on the type and size of the tattoo. How many sessions you’ll need also varies. According to ASPS (the American Society of Plastic Surgeons), the average price for cosmetic ablative skin resurfacing is $2,124. Prepare to pay between $1,000 and $3,000 to remove your tattoo with a CO2 laser, although it may be cheaper. Clinics often offer payment plans, and you can find various financing options.
Risks of CO2 laser resurfacing
In addition to the risk of scar formation, there are some common side effects of laser skin resurfacing that you should know. You may experience swelling, rashes, and some differences in skin pigmentation. There’s also a risk of infection if you don’t treat the affected area properly.
The main infection to look out for is Staphylococcus aureus. It’s wise to use a broad-spectrum prophylactic antibiotic for a few days to a week after your treatment. Cephalexin is a common example. However, there are also resistant forms of these bacteria, which could require a stronger medication like sulfamethoxazole.
Candida infections can also happen after CO2 laser resurfacing. This fungus is everywhere, and many people already suffer from internal overgrowth of Candida without knowing. If you notice a white slime on the site of your tattoo, you should see a doctor. If you get a fungal infection, it’s easy to treat it with antifungal medication such as fluconazole, and recovery is quick.
Another potential risk is contact dermatitis. Laser resurfacing thins or removes part of the epidermis. That makes the dermis more available to antigens. Thus, things that usually don’t bother your skin can get in and cause inflammation. For this reason, you should never apply any ointments or other products to your resurfaced area without consulting a professional. While your skin recovers, you may also be temporarily sensitized to mild allergies you didn’t know you had.
If you remove a tattoo from a location where the skin folds or flexes a lot, you must be careful to avoid adhesions. When resurfaced patches make contact for extended periods of time, they may fuse as they heal. You should always keep your skin taught while wrapping it, and make sure to wrap each patch individually.
Is CO2 Laser Resurfacing Right for You?
Let’s recap what we’ve just covered. CO2 laser resurfacing is an efficient method of tattoo removal. The main advantage of a CO2 laser is that it can get deep and remove affected skin. Unlike non-ablative lasers, it won’t leave the skin blackened problematic tattoo dyes. Another advantage is that if you got a tattoo to cover something up, CO2 laser resurfacing could remove that too.
While there are potential side effects to consider, they’re not unique to this laser tattoo removal method. Compared to chemical solutions, there aren’t as many complications, and the results are better. The main drawback is that it’s not ideal if you have dark skin.
Now it's time to find a clinic. If you want to learn more about erasing tattoos, keep reading our articles or contact us.