Can You Get Laser Hair Removal Over a Tattoo? We Investigate

A young woman's tattooed legs on a bed in sunlight

Getty Images / Sophie Mayanne

Laser hair removal has been around since the late 1980s, but if you spend a lot of time on TikTok, you might think the technique is some new-fangled trend. After all, the treatment has become incredibly popular on the app, with over 1.8 billion views of the hashtag #laserhairremoval. This popularity is due, in part, to the Internet's fresh obsession with at-home IPL hair removal devices—mentions of IPL hair removal have surpassed 23 million views on TikTok—which let users target unwanted patches of hair from the comfort of their own home.

Since laser hair removal has generated tons of buzz online, it may come as a surprise that it's not the best option for everyone. This is especially true if you have tattoos. Ahead, find out everything you need to know about laser hair removal and tattoos.

Meet the Expert

  • Michele S. Green, MD, is a cosmetic dermatologist based in the Upper East Side of NYC.
  • Dr. Brian Hibler is a board-certified and Harvard-fellowship-trained medical and cosmetic dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Midtown Manhattan

What Is Laser Hair Removal?

Laser hair removal is an incredibly popular cosmetic treatment that permanently removes hair (or at least significantly reduces its density). In order to achieve such results, you must undergo multiple treatments and have dark enough hair for the laser to target each follicle adequately. 

"The laser works at a specific wavelength that targets the pigment in the hair follicle, also known as melanin," says NYC-based cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green. With this in mind, Green points out that white and gray hair are not candidates for laser hair removal, as there's not enough pigment for the laser to target. Additionally, Dr. Brian Hibler, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, says that while laser hair removal can be performed on all hair colors, it generally works best on dark hair, given there's more pigment. (As someone with light natural hair, I can attest to this, as even after 10+ sessions under my arms, I still grow hair there. Though, admittedly, not as much.)

Since our hair grows in phases, a single treatment won't rid you of unwanted hair fully. "Laser hair removal destroys the hair follicle during the growth phase, and any hair follicles in the dormant stage are unaffected," Green says. "This is why multiple treatment sessions are necessary to achieve complete hair reduction in a given treatment area."

Overall, laser hair removal is a safe and effective treatment for removing unwanted hair—so long as you don't have tattoos. 

Can You Get Laser Hair Removal Over a Tattoo?

While lasers are designed only to target pigmentation within the hair follicle, Green says tattoos interfere with the process. "The laser will detect and target the pigment in the tattoo ink instead of the hair, which can result in a burn, pain, and damage to the skin and tattoo," she warns. In effect, while hair removal lasers differ from tattoo removal lasers, they can have a similar effect. "Laser tattoo removal works using a laser that targets pigments in tattoo ink, breaking up the pigment with a high-intensity light beam," Green shares. "The broken-up ink particles are then removed from the body through the natural immune system."

Are There Ways to Get Laser Hair Removal With a Tattoo? 

Hibler says that adding lasers into the mix when you have a tattoo is not advised. "A burn in the skin could result in a permanent scar and disfiguration," he warns. So at the end of the day, if you want to move forward with laser hair removal in an area where you have a tattoo, Green says you'll first need to remove the tattoo.

Alternatives to Laser Hair Removal

Now that you know that laser hair removal is off the table if you have tattoos, you might wonder what you can do to rid your body of unwanted hair. On the more affordable end of the spectrum, shaving and waxing are safe ways to remove body hair that covers tattoos. Just be sure to go with the grain (in other words, don’t shave or wax against the direction your hair naturally grows). And, as is always the case with shaving (tattoos or not), use a clean razor with sharp blades, as dull edges can potentially lead to nicks and cuts. You can also opt for a razor with a safety guard, like the Kitsch Perfect Glide Safety Razor ($29), to minimize the chance of cutting yourself mid-shave.

If you’re willing to invest more in your hair removal journey, Hibler and Green agree that electrolysis is a great option for longer-lasting results. “During electrolysis, an electric current is delivered to the bottom of the follicle, destroying the root and damaging the follicle to prevent hair growth,” Green explains. “Because electrolysis does not depend on pigment or melanin, it is safe for tattooed areas and white and gray hairs that cannot be treated with laser hair removal.”

The Final Takeaway

Since laser hair removal and tattoos don't go hand-in-hand, Green says it's important to keep your overall cosmetic goals in mind before getting a tattoo or making an appointment for laser hair removal. "The laser will detect the pigment in the tattoo instead of the hair and can burn the skin or cause damage to the skin and tattoo," she reiterates.

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