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Laser Tattoo Removal: A Brief History & Background

This is the first article in our 2-part series about Tattoo Removal, and it provides some higher-level information about tattoo removal such as current and past treatment methods, typical patient experience, and some interesting facts. My interview with expert Shaun Parry of Clean Slate State-of-the-Art Tattoo Removal will follow.

What is the best method of tattoo removal?

  • By far, the best method for tattoo removal is laser tattoo removal. The lasers used in tattoo removal are similar to those used for removal of unwanted hair, birthmarks, sun spots, freckles, and other non-raised skin blemishes.

What is the tattoo removal process?

  • Laser therapies work by producing short bursts, or pulses, of intense light that safely target pigment in the skin. Many laser treatments target normal pigment found in skin and hair follicles, but in tattoo removal, the laser targets (is selectively absorbed by) the tattoo pigment.
  • When the laser’s energy reaches the tattoo pigment, it causes the pigment to fragment into tiny particles that are later cleared by the body’s own immune system.
  • Lasers are able to remove a tattoo’s pigment without damaging the surrounding skin due to specific wavelengths that target only the tattoo ink.
    • In the past, laser tattoo removal was not safe for people with darker skin tones. This is because older laser technology could not differentiate between the pigment of the tattoo and the darker skin pigment.
    • However, thanks to advancements in laser technology, someone with a dark complexion can now have a tattoo safely removed by laser treatment.
  • It is important to know that laser tattoo removal will require multiple sessions. The number of treatments depends on the quality of the tattoo and the type of ink used by the tattoo artist as well as the depth of the tattoo into the skin layers.

What is the best kind of laser for tattoo removal?

  • The most advanced laser system in use today is the Q-switched Nd:YAG laser. It is extremely effective at removing red, blue, and black inks.
  • There are two optimal wavelengths for tattoo removal:
    1. 532 nm (nanometer) – best for light pigment
    2. 1064 nm – best for dark pigment

What can I expect my laser tattoo removal appointment to be like?

  • Protective eye shields are placed on the patient.
  • The skin's reaction to the laser is tested. This is to determine the best setting for treatment. • A hand piece is then placed against the surface of the skin, and the laser light is activated. Patients have described the pulses as feeling like splatters of grease on the skin, or like a rubber band being snapped against the skin.
  • Smaller tattoos require fewer pulses than large tattoos, but regardless of the size of the tattoo, multiple treatments/visits are typically necessary. At each treatment, the tattoo should become progressively lighter.
  • Immediately following treatment, an ice pack is applied to the area. The patient will then be instructed to apply a topical antibiotic cream or ointment. A bandage or patch will be used to protect the site, and the area should be covered with a sun block when out in the sun. For most clients, no anesthesia is required for the process, but a topical anesthetic – usually a cream – may be applied depending on the size and age of the tattoo, the location, and the person’s pain tolerance.

What other methods are/were used for tattoo removal?

  1. Dermabrasion: A surgical procedure that involves the controlled abrasion (wearing away) of the upper layers of the skin with sandpaper or other mechanical means. In layman terms, this means a physician would use a tool that “sanded” the surface and middle layers of the skin away until the tattoo was removed.
    • Dermabrasion required a local anesthetic, was painful, and likely left a scar in the place where the procedure was performed.
    • Dermabrasion should not be used as a tattoo removal option today as there are many other better and safer options.
  2. Cryosurgery: A surgical procedure where extreme cold is applied to destroy the tissue at the location of the tattoo. The most common method used for removal is liquid nitrogen.
    • Cryosurgery does not require a local anesthetic, is moderately painful, and leaves minimal scarring.
    • Cryosurgery is typically used for removing warts, moles, and many other skin conditions.
  3. Excision: A surgical procedure that must be performed by a trained dermatologic surgeon. The tattoo is removed by cutting the tattoo from the skin with a scalpel and then suturing the wound closed.
    • Excision is a painful procedure that has all the risks associated with any form of surgery.
    • Excision requires local anesthetic, will leave a scar where the skin was sutured back together, may have an extended healing period. Because of the risk for infection, antibiotics are required before and after the procedure.
    • A number of complications and issues exist, and this option should only be considered in rare cases where you have consulted a reputable dermatologist who has recommended this procedure as the best option in your individual situation.

Did you know?

  • The same laser used for tattoo removal has a 90% efficacy rate for completely eradicating toe and fingernail fungus after one treatment and is completely painless.
    • The best drug on the market for nail fungus, Lamisil (terbinafine), requires you to take 1 pill daily for 6 weeks to treat fingernail fungus and 1 pill daily for 12 weeks to treat toenail fungus. There are also a number of side effects associated with the medication and low efficacy.
  • Laser tattoo removal should leave no scarring.
  • The laser can be used to remove age or liver spots.


Related Articles: Tattoos: What You Need to KnowTattoos: A Brief History


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