The are a myriad of reasons for considering tattoo removal. Did the artist you go to accidentally blow out your lines, making them blurry and uneven? Did you forget to follow proper aftercare? Did the color turn out wrong? Was the detail too dark? Whatever the reason for removing your ink, there’s a lot to know before scheduling your first appointment.
Whether you want your design completely gone or you want it faded enough to get a cover-up tattoo, here’s everything you need to know about the tattoo removal process.
How to Prepare
If you’re looking to have a tattoo removed, there’s a bit of prep work that goes into the procedure. The first step is to find an experienced professional to take on the task of removing your tattoo. CEO of GO! Tattoo Removal Mike Panic urges you to have a dermatologists to perform this task. However, make sure you find someone with a high level of expertise with lasers specifically—not just dermatology in general.
Once you’ve found a professional, you have to examine the tattoo you want lasered. Do you want it fully removed or just faded? Is it small or large? Is it just black ink or are there multiple colors? Because each tattoo is different, every individual piece of ink presents its own challenges.
“No tattoo is easy to remove,” says Panic. "Each one will respond differently, because tattoo ink, like the make-up industry, is not regulated."
How challenging a tattoo will be to remove is important for more than just peace of mind; it also allows you to understand how much time will need to be dedicated to the process. Tattoo removal usually takes many sessions, and the treatment time varies depending on your design's details, size, and placement. While no tattoo is easy to remove, multicolored designs tend to be more difficult, according to Dr. Omar Ibrahimi, founder and director of the Connecticut Skin Institute. Treatment time varies depending on what your tattoo looks like, but it can range anywhere from a few seconds to thirty minutes. The best way to get an accurate estimate of how long the lasering will take is to consult your dermatologist, though Ibrahimi suggests setting aside a good chunk of time.
"[What your ink looks like] is important to know because I can’t remove your ex's name two months before your wedding with someone else," says Ibrahimi. "Good planning and allowing at least a year of treatment time can be helpful."
Another thing to consider before going in for your tattoo removal appointment is how long you’ve had the ink. If you just got tattooed last week, you’re going to have to wait at least until the tattoo heals, though some dermatologists will ask that your tattoo be a few months old. Tan or sunburnt skin will mess with the laser treatment too, says Panic, so avoid the sun before your appointment (or schedule it for the winter months). He also suggests shaving any hair on or near the tattoo the day of your treatment and avoiding lotions beforehand.
"Just like a tattoo, it's best to not drink alcohol the night before, to get a good night of sleep, to eat a few hours prior to coming in, and to wear comfortable clothing so I can easily access the tattoo," added Panic. "Loose-fitting clothing is ideal to wear home."
Tattoo removal works by using powerful lasers to break down the pigment from your healed tattoo. The lasers fracture these otherwise solid pigment particles in the second layer of skin, also called the dermis. These particles are then broken up into pieces small enough to be filtered and processed out by the body’s immune system. However, as strong as these lasers may be, tattoo removal never makes a design disappear 100 percent due to the makeup of tattoo ink.
"Compounded with the invasive procedure of tattooing, and then relying on one’s immune system to process the ink out, my office (and the industry as a whole) considers full removal to be 90-95 percent," said Ibrahimi. "We will never guarantee 100 percent removal due to the sheer number of variables."
There are a number of these variables that affect how much and how quickly your tattoo fades, according to Panic. Designs with white pigments tend to shift to a brownish-black due to titanium dioxide, rather than fading from their original light color. Yellow is also almost impossible to remove with a laser, so hues with a strong yellow undertone may present major problems. Cover-up tattoos, black-out tattoos, heavy tribal tattoos, and thick blackwork may be challenging as well due to the pigment saturation and any trauma the skin faced during tattooing. The placement has to be considered too; wrist, hand, finger, ankle, foot, or toe tattoos tend to fade fairly slowly, requiring a higher number of treatments.
Based on the variables, those looking to have their tattoo lasered may consider simply having the ink faded rather than almost fully removed.
"80% or more of the clients coming into my office are not looking to remove a tattoo," noted Panic. "[They want] to have it faded with two to four treatments so their tattoo artist can do a cover-up tattoo with virtually no compromises."
When treatments are conducted by a certified laser professional, the possibility of any adverse side effects is very low. However, blistering may occur in some places due to pigment density or color. Any negative side effects you see will most likely come from poor aftercare, though, says Panic. You shouldn’t expect to see anything wrong with your removal as long as proper procedure is followed after your treatments.
One thing to keep in mind is how your skin may react to the laser treatment. According to Panic, clients with darker skin tones are more susceptible to hypopigmentation—which is where the area of removal ends up lighter than the original skin tone. This effect is due to the lasers destroying melanin in the concentrated area. In extreme cases, white spots may form where the tattoo was instead of fading to a natural skin color.
The cost of tattoo removal depends on the clinic, as each one will price differently — some charge by the square inch, some by a generic size (such as a postage stamp or credit card size), or a flat fee per treatment. Panic, for example, says GO! Tattoo Removal charges a $200 flat rate per appointment, regardless of how many tattoos are getting lasered. His clinic also offers a price for extremely small tattoos, but it’s not publicized. To confirm pricing, your best bet is to consult with your dermatologist during your initial consultation.
And while tipping may be customary for getting a tattoo, removing one requires no fee above what is discussed in the initial appointment. Instead, if you are happy with your results, Panic says to spread the word and leave a review on the clinic/practice's social media and Google page.
Post-treatment, you can expect to have some minor swelling, redness, tenderness, bruising, or slight sensitivity to touch. Dr. Ibrahimi suggests avoiding exposure to heat, direct sunlight, and swimming for at least 10 days after each appointment. In the same vein, to avoid getting too warm yourself, it’s best to stay away from exercising, saunas, or extremely hot showers for three to five days. He also suggests wearing a quality sunscreen, just as you should every day. Otherwise, you can go about your life as normal.
"Unlike healing a fresh tattoo, there's no open wound, so the healing process is much easier for clients," said Panic.