Laser tattoo removal

Picture of laser tattoo removal

Laser tattoo removal

Getting a tattoo can seem a great idea at the time, but what if you change your mind? Luckily, lasers can help to fade tattoos to a point where they are difficult to see, or can be easily hidden. 

Why would I want laser tattoo removal?

Tattoos can seem a great idea when they are first performed, but over the years fashions and tastes change, making a design outdated and unwanted. Also, a tattoo on a visible part of the body such as the forearm, neck or face may be a problem for certain jobs, where the design or tattoo itself may be considered inappropriate. Commonly, a tattoo has been performed of a partner’s name – this may be an unwanted reminder in the event of a subsequent break-up of the relationship

How do lasers remove tattoos?

Lasers for skin tattoos are basically very strong pulses of light at a specific wavelength. When attempting to reduce the appearance of a tattoo, the colours used in the artwork will dictate which lasers are needed to target the inks. Because of this, a number of different lasers may be needed to treat a tattoo with many different colours, whilst a tattoo with a single colour (eg black) may respond well to just one laser. 

The ink in a tattoo is made up of lots of small ink particles. The laser light is absorbed by the ink, causing it to heat up and break into lots of tiny particles. These can then be harmlessly absorbed by the body, causing the tattoo to fade. Lasers do not therefore ‘remove’ tattoos as such – but they can fade them to a point where they are harder to see, or easier to hide or tattoo over.

How is laser tattoo removal performed?

Whilst laser tattoo removal can be slightly painful, a general anaesthetic (going to sleep) is rarely needed. Usually, cold air or a cold jet spray is applied to the treated area, reducing the pain. Whilst this may be tolerated for small areas, larger areas may need a numbing cream or injection to the area before treatment.

A test patch is usually performed, whereby only a small area is treated first. This lets the specialist decide which settings will work best for your tattoo. The test patch area is then checked after a few weeks, to look for any signs of complications (see below) and if all has healed well then the rest of the tattoo can be treated.

A number of treatments (6-10) may be needed depending on the tattoo, with professional tattoos being more difficult to remove as the ink may be deeper in the skin. After each treatment the tattoo should fade, eventually fading to a point where it is barely visible. For this reason, many laser specialists call the treatment ‘laser tattoo reduction’, rather than ‘removal’

What are the risks of laser tattoo removal?

There are a number of risks and complications including: 

Bruising/burning/blistering/scarring – as lasers heat up the tattoo ink, the skin can often also overheat and usually bruises and can blister. Occasionally this can result in a burn which heals by scarring. In most cases the scarring area is small and mild but can, in some rarer cases, be more extensive. 

Partial response or non-response – if the ink was placed deep in the skin during the tattooing, then the laser may not be able to reach this and so treatment results may be limited. Also, certain ink colours (eg white, yellow) respond very poorly to lasers and other treatments such as dermabrasion or surgical removal may then be needed. Results can also depend on what type of ink was used by the tattoo artist as many different compounds can be used to create similar colours (red for example can contain any number of different compounds) – some respond well to laser treatment whilst others do not. 

A really important factor in the response seen is the type of laser being used. Effective laser tattoo removal is best performed by a quality powerful laser, that is specifically for tattoo treatment. If a less powerful (usually cheaper) laser is used, this can be less effective and need more treatments or have little effect at all.

Change in pigmentation – often, at the same time as the laser reducing the ink colour, the colour of the skin itself may also be affected in the treated area. This can result in hypopigmentation (paleness of skin) or hyperpigmentation (darkening of skin). This effect may be temporary, lasting a few months, or can be lifelong. 

Pain – the treated area can feel sore for a day or two after treatment, which usually responds well to simple painkillers. Larger areas though can cause more pain which could need stronger pain relief. 

Infection – blistered and broken skin can allow infection to enter, resulting in a red inflamed area. This may require antibiotics, but could potentially increase the chances of scarring and pigment changes. 

Change in tattoo colour – artists may use various dyes to make up a colour and can add certain materials to make the tattoo look more vibrant or change hues. These additives can react with lasers and change the colour of the tattoo, sometimes turning a light colour into a dark/black colour, which can be permanent. Test patching may help discover this, limiting the affecting area to a small patch only

This information is for general information only. If you have any concerns about your health or are considering any treatments, you should seek advice from a healthcare specialist

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