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Tattoo Removal: Everything You Need to Know


Laser is the most efficient way to remove a tattoo, but your results may vary.

About 1 in 3 Americans have a tattoo, but not all of them are happy with their body art. In fact, about 1 in 4 people with a tattoo regret it.


If you are in that group, you may wish to look into laser tattoo removal and other options. Lasers are the most popular and efficient tools to remove a tattoo, but you can also try dermabrasion, ablation, surgical removal, or tattoo removal by tattooing over the art you don’t like.


Keep in mind you may experience complications like tattoo removal scars, skin discoloration, or some pain.


Continue reading to learn more, including tattoo removal cost, tattoo removal before and after photos, how tattoo removal works, why you probably can’t remove your tattoo at home.



Types of Tattoo Removal


When you get a tattoo, the ink is placed in the dermis, which is the second layer of your skin, the dermis. This is below the epidermis, the surface layer of your skin that frequently sheds and changes. Because tattoo ink settles in a layer deeper than the surface of your skin, removing it can be difficult.


There are four main options for getting a tattoo removed. If you’re considering these, talk with a dermatologist about what will work best for you, given your tattoo color, skin tone, and health history.3 If none of these options works, you can also talk with a tattoo artist about covering your tattoo with another.



Laser Removal


Laser tattoo removal is the most common way to get rid of unwanted tattoos. It works by breaking up the ink (using a laser) into very small pieces that the body’s immune system then clears away.


You can expect to pay between $500 and $1,500 for a laser tattoo removal session, although the price will vary widely based on the size of your tattoo and how your body responds to the treatment. You will likely need more than one session. A first session is considered successful if about half of the tattoo ink is removed. The number of sessions you need will depend on the size and colors of the tattoo.


Laser tattoo removal works best on dark-colored tattoos. Green, red, and yellow ink are difficult to remove with this method. Tattoos with white ink are especially difficult to remove with laser tattoo removal because the laser can cause these inks to oxidize (rust). Once that happens, the ink can’t be removed with a laser.


Laser tattoo removal doesn’t always work. Also, it can cause scarring, or leave behind an area of skin that is lighter than the skin around it.



Dermabrasion and Ablation


This approach to tattoo removal doesn’t actually touch the ink. Instead, it causes a mild injury to the epidermis. This causes an immune response in the body, which can help lighten the pigment of the tattoo.


In dermabrasion, this minor injury is caused by sanding away the top layer of skin. With abolition, it is caused by burning off the top layer of skin.


Neither of these options works particularly well. They can lighten a tattoo, but don’t often remove it entirely. There’s also a larger risk of scarring or discoloration. If you’re considering one of these methods, talk with your healthcare provider about what you can expect.



Surgical Removal


Surgical removal can be a good option for very small tattoos. A healthcare provider cuts out the tattooed section of skin, then stitches together the surrounding skin. This carries additional risk for pain or infection since healthcare providers are cutting into your skin. It is important to note that surgery will also leave a scar.



Does Tattoo Removal Hurt?


Laser tattoo removal is somewhat painful. It can feel like a rubber band being snapped against your skin. Your healthcare provider can use a local anesthetic to help manage the pain. Dermabrasion and ablation can be painful too, but healthcare providers will use a local anesthetic to manage the pain.


If you opt for surgical removal, talk with your healthcare provider about what to expect for pain. While local anesthetic will be used during the procedure, you may have some pain afterward.



Who Is a Candidate for Tattoo Removal?


In general, people who are healthy nonsmokers are good candidates for tattoo removal, although it’s important to have realistic expectations. The removal likely won’t leave your skin looking untouched—you will still have some remnants of the tattoo or scarring.


The easiest tattoos to remove are tattoos with lots of black ink. Colored tattoos, including red, yellow, and green, are more difficult, while white tattoos can be impossible to remove with a laser because the laser turns these inks black. Small tattoos are easier than large pieces to remove.


There are lots of factors that go into how good of a candidate you are for tattoo removal including:


  • The size, color, and location of the tattoo

  • How long you have had it

  • Your health history and medications you take

  • Your past experience with scars


While you can go to a tattoo parlor to have a removal, some people find better results if they see a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. These healthcare specialists can help you determine whether you’re a good candidate for tattoo removal and what to expect.



What’s the Procedure Like?


Generally, your healthcare provider will provide a local anesthetic. Still, you might experience some pain during the removal. Ask your healthcare provider what pain level to expect, and how long the procedure will last. This is all highly variable, depending on the size of your tattoo, its colors, and your personal health history.



Does It Take More Than One Session to Remove a Tattoo?


In almost all cases it will take more than one session to remove a tattoo. Sometimes it takes 10 visits or more. No matter how many sessions you do, your tattoo may not be removed entirely. It’s important to talk with your provider about what to expect.



How Long Does Tattoo Removal Take?


Depending on the size of a tattoo, laser tattoo removal only takes a few minutes. You can expect about 10 to 30 minutes per session for laser removal. However, you will likely need multiple sessions.6


Surgical removal takes a few hours, but only needs to be done once. However, it is rarely offered, and would be used mostly for very small tattoos.



What About At-Home Tattoo Removal?


At-home tattoo removal isn’t recommended because it doesn’t work. Some creams claim to lighten tattoos, but these are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Creams penetrate the top layer of skin, but can’t get to the dermis, where tattoo ink settles.



Cover Up Tattoos


Sometimes, the best way to get rid of a tattoo that you’re no longer happy with is to cover it up. Since tattoo removal often leaves scars or some pigmentation, many people who like tattoos in general but wish to remove a certain tattoo opt for a new piece of body art. If you go this route, make sure you’re committed to the new art, since these pieces are often larger than the original and thus more difficult to remove. Talk with multiple tattoo artists to get a realistic idea of how well the new design can cover the older tattoo.



Finding a Specialist


Talk with your primary care provider, dermatologist, or plastic surgeon to get recommendations on tattoo removal. You can also speak with tattoo artists in your area, but remember, tattoo removal is something that should be handled by a professional with medical training.




Is Tattoo Removal Safe?


Tattoo removal is safe when it’s done by a trained professional. Someone with experience in tattoo removal can also help you set realistic expectations about removing your body art.




Potential Risks and Complications


Just like getting a tattoo, removing a tattoo comes with possible complications.

These include:

  • Scarring

  • Skin discoloration

  • Incomplete removal of the tattoo

  • Burns



How to Care for Your Skin After Tattoo Removal


After you have had a tattoo laser removal session, it’s normal to bleed or develop a slight rash. Whether you do laser removal or another option, talk with your healthcare provider about what to expect.




It’s important to avoid the following:


  • Sun exposure, for one week

  • Picking at or scratching the area

  • Strenuous exercise

  • Swimming and saunas

  • Soap and perfume, for 48 hours


You can use aloe vera or petroleum jelly to soothe itching and keep the area moisturized.



Summary


Laser tattoo removal is the most effective way to get rid of a tattoo. You can also try dermabrasion, ablation, or surgical removal. However, no form of tattoo removal is perfect.


Laser removal doesn’t always remove all pigment, and it can be painful and expensive. Many people opt to cover up tattoos they’re not happy with, with another tattoo. Whatever option you choose, speak to an experienced professional and go in with realistic expectations about your outcomes.



Article written by Kelly Burch for verywellhealth.com

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