About 40 percent of young Americans have a tattoo. So it's no surprise that laser tattoo removal is suddenly so popular. If you're one of the many with a regrettable tattoo, it's possible you've already considered tattoo removal in the past. But how much do you actually know about this procedure?
Laser tattoo removal is a safe, non-invasive alternative to other techniques like surgical excision. So before choosing to have your tattoo literally cut away, consider the pros, cons, and cost of laser tattoo removal.
How Do Tattoos Work?
Even if you have one or more tattoos of your own, you might not know how they work. Yes, your tattoo artist uses tiny needles to insert ink underneath your skin. These needles puncture the skin 50 to 3,000 times per minute. But the science behind tattoos is a little more complex than just that.
Some believe that tattoo needles work like a pen, but there isn't any ink inside the needle. Instead, the ink coats the outside of the needle, and a little bit is left underneath the skin as the needle pulls back out. During this process, the needle must penetrate both the epidermis and dermis. The epidermis is the thin outer layer of skin. Age, exfoliation, and injury wear away at the epidermis. While the cells regenerate, this wouldn't make for a very permanent tattoo. Below this layer is the dermis. It is the thickest layer of our skin and holds our hair follicles, sweat glands, and collagen. This is also where the ink of a tattoo sits.
But these ink particles don't just idly sit underneath the skin. The body's immune system is responsible for the permanence of tattoo ink. As the tattoo needle cause thousands of tiny injuries to the skin, the immune system sends out ranks of blood cells. The most important of these cells is called a macrophage. The macrophage cells grab onto the ink particles. While some carry these particles through the immune system, eventually expelling them through bodily waste, others remain under the skin at the site of injury. That is what causes tattoos to fade over time, but also what makes them permanent.
What Is Laser Tattoo Removal?
One of the reasons that the immune system isn't able to carry away all of the ink particles is because they are just too big. This is where laser tattoo removal comes into the picture. Laser tattoo removal uses lights to break apart the ink particles underneath the skin's surface. Once these ink particles break into smaller pieces, the immune system can more efficiently pick them up and dispose of them.
Each laser tattoo removal appointment can last from an hour to five or more, and removing a tattoo can take several sessions. That is because the laser's light can only penetrate the top layer of ink. Once this layer is processed and removed by the immune system, the laser can reach the next layer. The treatment continues until it reaches every layer.
Removing a dark or heavily saturated tattoo will also take more sessions because there is likely more ink present underneath the skin. Tattoos with a wide range of colors might also need different laser types and wavelengths for the best results.
Many businesses offer laser tattoo removal: salons, spas, plastic surgery offices, and even tattoo studios. But no matter where you choose to go for your procedure, make sure that a licensed dermatologist performs the treatment.
Does laser tattoo removal hurt?
Just like getting the tattoo in the first place, laser tattoo removal will probably hurt. Some patients report that getting laser tattoo removal is less painful than getting a tattoo, while others report it is much more painful than a tattoo. But again, experiences vary. While this pain can range from mild discomfort to intense stinging, most professional tattoo removers provide some kind of numbing ointment before applying the laser. You can also apply anesthetic cream and take non-aspirin painkillers a couple of hours before your appointment, although you should talk to your doctor first because some of these can cause more bleeding during and after the procedure.
After your tattoo removal session, the treated area will probably feel a bit like a sunburn. This discomfort can last for a few days. You might also notice blisters and scabbing as the area heals. The best thing you can do is leave the area alone except for aftercare steps suggested by your dermatologist.
Are there other drawbacks to laser tattoo removal?
While laser tattoo removal is an excellent option for most people looking to remove an unwanted tattoo, there are some potential drawbacks. Some effects of laser tattoo removal include incomplete fading of the tattoo, scarring, and discoloration.
The first thing to consider before choosing laser tattoo removal is that not all tattoos will completely fade. In many cases, a faint version of the image will remain no matter how many treatments you get. While this might not bother some people, these subpar results might disappoint others.
If you're prone to scarring, then there is a chance you'll scar after a laser treatment. There's no way to guarantee whether or not this will happen, but there are some preventive steps you can take. Avoid picking at or otherwise disrupting the area as it heals. But almost all patients who follow proper aftercare will experience little or no scarring.
Depending on your skin tone, laser tattoo removal can cause hyper- and hypopigmentation. Hyperpigmentation is darkening of the skin and is more common in people with seasonally tan or dark skin. Hypopigmentation is the opposite, whereas the area's skin becomes lighter. While these pigmentation issues often return to normal after a few months, some patients might always have slight discoloration.
Who Should Consider Laser Tattoo Removal?
Even though laser tattoo removal has some drawbacks, for most people, the risk of slight scarring or discoloration is preferable to their unwanted tattoo. You should also remember that these side effects are just a possibility, not everyone is guaranteed to experience these downsides.
Laser tattoo removal is a great choice for those looking to cover up their tattoo existing tattoo with a new one. A couple of sessions can lighten the tattoo enough that is invisible underneath the new ink. Undergoing laser tattoo removal can also make your new tattoo artist's job a little easier, as they don't need to work around your old ink as much. In fact, this is why many tattoo studios have started offering laser tattoo removal in-house. If you go this route, you'll need to wait up to two months before you can get a new tattoo in the same location.
Another group of people who can benefit from laser tattoo removal is those who are allergic to their tattoo. Some people discover that their body reacts to tattoo ink only after getting a tattoo. This can cause swelling, itching, and pain in the tattooed region. Laser tattoo removal helps to remove most of the ink and subdue the allergic reaction.
In the end, it's your choice whether or not to undergo laser tattoo removal. If you're feeling unsure, you can always book a consultation with one or more local dermatologists. They can discuss the pain, risks, and expected outcome for your specific situation. They can also give you an idea of the cost to remove your tattoo.
How Much Does Laser Tattoo Removal Cost?
Most sources estimate the per session cost of laser tattoo removal between $200 and $500. Prices will vary depending on location and your chosen dermatologist. But, as with all medical procedures, it's better to invest a little extra money for higher quality work.
The main factor in calculating the overall cost of laser tattoo removal is the number of sessions you need. This number will depend on the size, color, and age of your tattoo. Whether or not your tattoo was done by a professional will also affect the time it takes to remove. While professional artists apply ink in a more even fashion, which sometimes makes it easier to remove, many amateur artists apply the ink in the skin's more shallow layers.
Unfortunately, laser tattoo removal is considered a cosmetic procedure in most cases. That means that insurance companies won't cover any of the costs of these procedures. However, it never hurts to ask, especially if you're choosing laser tattoo removal because of an allergy or other reaction.
How to Choose a Laser Tattoo Remover
It's quite possible that the reason you're getting your tattoo removed is that you didn't research and shop around before picking a tattoo artist. So don't make the same mistake when choosing someone to remove your tattoo.
Now that you know more about the process of laser tattoo removal, you might be ready to book an appointment tomorrow. But not all laser tattoo removers are equal in cost, skill, and equipment. Here are some steps you can follow to ensure you find the best laser tattoo remover for your procedure:
Choose a dermatologist
While medspas and laser tattoo removal clinics are becoming more commonplace, they aren't as safe as strictly regulated dermatology offices. These non-medical clinics have even scammed customers in the past by suddenly closing down with no trace. Some clinics will also have a medical physician overseeing the office to meet certain regulations. But in many of these cases, this physician is rarely on-site, and unlicensed and poorly trained employees do procedures with no actual medical training.
For the best results and your own personal health, make sure to choose a licensed dermatologist certified for laser tattoo removal. Not only will a dermatologist have the knowledge and expertise needed to give you the best possible results, but they'll also have access to the highest quality equipment.
Ask to see before and after photos
Any licensed dermatologist should keep a record of past clients and their results. While some might only offer photos of the final results, images of both the before and after are preferable. These photos will give you an idea of the dermatologist's skills and what you can expect from your results.
Many dermatologists will post before and after photos on their professional website. But you might need to ask to see them. Even if they do post some on their website, you can also ask if they have any not currently posted online. If a dermatologist is unwilling or unable to provide before and after examples, you're probably better off choosing someone else.
Look at customer reviews
As with any major purchase or procedure, you should check out past customer reviews before choosing a specific clinic or dermatologist. Look for someone who has many positive reviews, even if there are a couple neutral or negative ones mixed in. Be wary of clinics or dermatologists with a high or perfect rating but only a handful of reviews. Also look at reviews to make sure they are from real, unbiased clients and not sponsored or fake.
Reviews are also a great place to find independent before and after photos. The before and after photos provided by a clinic or dermatologist could be doctored or handpicked to show the best possible results. RealSelf is a great place to find reviews and images for many of your local dermatologists.
Choose What's Right for You
Whether your unwanted tattoo is big or small, laser tattoo removal is a great option for many patients. But there are some drawbacks to this procedure. And for many people, the cost of these treatments is simply out of reach. If you're certain that laser tattoo removal is something you want, your local dermatologist might be able to offer a payment plan or other financing. Either way, it's best to save for the cost of a licensed clinic than to settle for an unregulated medspa or salon offering a Groupon deal.
Tattoos and their removal can be a sensitive subject, especially when these tattoos signify an ex-partner or other negative time in our lives. But learning a bit more about the science and process behind it all can help alleviate some of the anxiety you might feel about laser tattoo removal. Hopefully, with a little help from us, you now feel educated and prepared to make the right decision for you and your body.