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Is Laser Tattoo Removal Effective?

Tattoos have long been a popular form of body decoration. While many who get a tattoo are happy with the result, regret is sometimes a side effect of the process.  Tattoos were once thought to be permanent, but with the advent of laser technology, tattoo removal is becoming an increasingly popular topic of discussion.

So, is laser tattoo removal effective? There is no doubt that it can be, with dramatic stories of effective laser tattoo removal occasionally seen in the news. But the reality is that, while it can be effective, it is not quick or easy, and it definitely is not pain free.

woman back tattoo

How Laser Tattoo Removal Works

Laser tattoo removal works by passing energy through the skin in order to break up the tattoo pigment, making it the first truly effective form of removal. Dr. Neal Schultz, a board certified dermatologist in New York, describes the process as follows

There are a lot of different ways to remove tattoos but they all cause scarring except for one. Only laser tattoo removal will remove a tattoo without a scar and give you a cosmetically superior result. In order to understand why all of the other techniques cause scarring, you really need to understand what a tattoo is. When people get a tattoo, they get lots of injections of colored ink, and in that ink, are colored pigment particles. Those particles are pushed through the upper layer of the skin, which is called the epidermis, into the top of the dermis where scavenger cells eat or ingest that pigment, and those cells live there forever, so they keep the colored particles forever, and that’s why the tattoos last so long or almost forever. All the other techniques other than lasers need to actually get to the pigment particles, either by cutting them out or scraping them out and, in doing so, you’ve got to break through the upper layer of the skin, the epidermis, and, in so doing, that’s why you get scars. The reason that lasers work their magic is that when the laser energy passes through the epidermis, it doesn’t do any damage, and also the laser energy is very targeted just for the color pigment of the tattoo, so it only damages that color pigment, it doesn’t damage any of the surrounding skin.

When a tattoo is put in, ink is injected into the skin with particles and these particles have a color. They’re relatively large particles in terms of the scale of the skin. These large particles are much too big for the body to get rid of so they stay there. It’s sort of like if I were to try to take the large bookcase behind me out through a window- it just wouldn’t fit. Lasers work by actually pulverizing those larger particles into tiny, tiny little particles and those little particles can then easily be taken away by the body and then the tattoo disappears.

The full process, however, is not quick or simple.  As Schultz notes, there is “a catch,” it takes about two months for the body remove the pigment that was effected by each treatment. Thus, patients must wait as long as 2 months between treatments. Further, multiple treatments, as many as 12 or more, may be necessary to completely remove a tattoo, resulting in a process that can take several years to complete.

Chances For Successful Tattoo Removal

According to Debra Jaliman, a New York Board Certified Dermatologist and author of the upcoming book, Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist, laser tattoo removal is effective for most people, but it works best on black and red tattoos. Red, yellow, purple, and sky blue colors are harder to remove and require more sessions.  Most experts also report that green is a particularly difficult color to remove. According to Schultz, white is particularly difficult to remove, because the laser energy will sometimes turn it into a black pigment that is then impossible for the laser to get rid of.  It is easier to remove smaller tattoos over larger ones, and people with lighter skin often have a better response to tattoo removal.

The time removal takes can vary depending on the person and the size of the tattoos being removed. According to Kathleen Stegman, Founder of Midwest Medical Aesthetics, predicting the exact number of treatments needed is difficult. Dr. Glenn Kolansky, a Board Certified Dermatologist in New Jersey, notes that 7 to 10 treatments are usually necessary, while Dr. Schultz observes that 8 to 12 treatments might be necessary for removal of professional tattoos, while home tattoos might be removed in 3 or 4 treatments.

As previously noted, because there is a lengthy waiting period between treatments, the overall time that it takes to completely remove a tattoo is rather long.   It also is not cheap. Sessions often cost a minimum of $100 for a rather small area and can quickly go up in price as the size of the tattoo increases.

Discomfort During Tattoo Removal

The experts agree that tattoo removal can be painful, and patients tend to report fairly high level of discomfort during the treatments. Most patients use a topical numbing cream before each session and a local anesthesia is often also used. Healing after each session normally takes at least a week, but may be longer. Normally an antibiotic ointment is used after treatment, and the area is covered with a bandage.

Side Effects of Removal

In some patients, the skin might become hypopigmented with lighter areas seen on darker skin, or hyperpigmented, with dark spots on lighter skin. Scarring from burns are possible, but are rare.

Other Options

Laser removal is the only truly effective option for completely eradicating a tattoo. However, if the time, discomfort, and cost of removal is not for you, there are various makeup items, such as Dermablend, that that can cover tattoos.

In sum, although a tattoos can now be removed, the difficulty of that removal makes it such that any tattoo should still be considered as a permanent decoration. So think carefully before getting inked, as you will be living with that decoration for quite some time.

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