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Tattoo removal: What’s the process?

Getting rid of a tattoo can be a long and challenging process.

Tattoo on shoulder

Today, laser tattoo removal does make the process easier — older techniques often involved dermabrasion and salabrasion (scrubbing the skin with salt). Laser tattoo removal is a non-invasive removal of skin pigments using lasers, and can normally take away black and darker inks the most completely.

Unfortunately, the pain and expense of removing tattoos is still typically greater than the pain and expense of applying them. If you’re having second thoughts about your ink, here’s what you should expect when you have it removed.

The method

Simply put, lasers react with the ink in a tattoo to break it down; the ink is then absorbed into the body. Every tattoo pigment has a very specific light absorption spectrum and the laser used in removal must emit adequate energy to effectively remove each pigment. Differently switched lasers are better for different tattoo colours, so removal of a multi-colour tattoo almost always requires the use of multiple laser wavelengths. Since flourescents such as yellows and greens have absorption spectra that fall on the edge of laser emission spectra, it’s actually easier to remove black and dark colours, oranges and reds. Q-switched lasers developed after 2006 provide multiple wavelengths that help the operator successfully treat a broader range of pigments.

The timing

Laser tattoo removal will require a series of visits. Sessions under the laser for tattoo removal should be spaced at least eight weeks apart. Treating more frequently increases the risk of adverse effects, without increasing the rate of removal. At each session, some of the pigment is fragmented, and the body absorbs these fragments over the ensuing weeks. The remaining large portions of ink pigment are targeted at the next session, and the process is repeated. In this manner, the tattoo begins to lighten over time. The number of treatments necessary is very individual, with the location of the tattoo also playing a role. Tattoos located on extremities, such as the ankle, generally take the longest to remove. Your skin type; the tattoo’s location, colour, amount of ink and any scarring or tissue change can determine how long your sessions will be and how many will be needed.

The individual’s own immune system contributes to the success or failure of the removal process. Healthy patients get the best results, and everyone is reminded to stay adequately hydrated throughout the weeks and months of treatment.

Laser tattoo removal can be uncomfortable, but in most cases the pain associated with it is tolerable. Some patients need a local anesthesia to manage the discomfort, while those with a higher pain threshold manage fine without it. Pre-treatment often includes application of an anesthetic cream one to two hours prior to a session. Immediately following the laser treatment, many notice a slightly elevated white discoloration at the site, with or without light bleeding. A crust appears over the entire tattoo, and sloughs off about two weeks post-treatment. The newest Q-switched lasers rarely cause scarring, but tattooed body areas with thinner skin are more susceptible to damage.

It’s a long and relatively costly procedure to get a tattoo removed, so it’s always good advice to “think before you ink.”

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