Laser tattoo removal – treatment, services and what you can expect
Tattoos are usually intended to be a permanent fixture when we get them, but it’s common to change our minds. Whether the artist didn’t deliver the expected results, or you no longer feel connected to the original design, laser tattoo removal can help you deal with ink you no longer want on your body.
And you wouldn’t be alone; the global tattoo removal market is estimated to be worth US$795 million by 2027 – a rise of almost 20 per cent on 2020.
But what does laser tattoo removal involve? Does it hurt? And what kind of results can you expect?
In this article:
Duration of results
Back to work
Full recovery time
600 SAR to 5,100 SAR
2 to 30 minutes
OTC pain relief
What is laser tattoo removal?
Laser tattoo removal is a cosmetic procedure that removes unwanted tattoos from the skin, by exposing the treatment area to a powerful laser. It’s usually carried out by a qualified dermatologist at a clinic.
How does it work?
When you have a tattoo, the needle pumps ink beneath the top layer of your skin, the epidermis, into the second layer – the dermis. That’s why tattoos look like they’re inside your skin.
The process involves damaging the skin, and the body responds with white blood cells which attempt to absorb foreign particles (the ink) and dispose of them in the blood stream. However, the ink particles in a tattoo are too big to be eaten by white cells so they just sit there.
To get rid of a tattoo, the laser has to penetrate beneath the epidermis, and into the dermis. The process involves the breakdown of the ink, and the body responds with the immune system in attempt to absorb foreign particles (the ink) and dispose of them through the lymphatic system.
Two main types of lasers are used to achieve this: Q-Switched and Picosecond. Q-Switched lasers, such as Nd:YAG, produce short, high-energy pulses, generating a shockwave that breaks down the pigment.
Picosecond lasers use a photothermal approach – which creates more powerful heat and inflammation – to break ink into much smaller particles, speeding up the removal process.
What happens during the procedure?
Before the treatment
Seek out a clinic with strong experience in laser tattoo removal and arrange an initial consultation. The colour, thickness of lines, size and placement, and the type of ink used will determine how much of the tattoo can be removed – as well as how many sessions you will require.
Before having the treatment, remember to:
- Get plenty of rest the previous night.
- Shave the tattooed skin.
- Remove any creams or lotions.
- Put something loose and comfortable out to wear on the day of the procedure.
- Apply numbing gel or take pain relief at least 30 minutes before treatment.
Does it hurt?
Everyone’s tolerance to pain is different, with some people comparing laser tattoo removal to simply being pinged with an elastic band. However, sensitivity, tattoo placement and laser strength can mean that while the treatment is manageable, it can also be a little more than uncomfortable for some.
For your first session, apply your own numbing gel, available at most pharmacies, 30 minutes ahead of treatment – giving it time to take effect.
Some dermatologists will also use cold air to alleviate any discomfort caused by the laser.
Tell your dermatologist if you have any concerns and if you have already applied numbing cream. They may apply their own to help further.
During the treatment
After talking through the treatment, your dermatologist will give you a pair of goggles to wear.
They will then run a handheld device over the area being treated, exposing the tattooed skin to a powerful laser. This breaks the ink pigment into tiny particles, ready for your immune system to dispose of it as waste.
Good aftercare is crucial if you want to avoid side-effects such as blistering.
- Stay out of the sun for at least a week.
- Avoid swimming for at least a week.
- Take short, cool showers rather than long, hot ones.
- Wear good quality sunscreen.
Laser tattoo removal effects – and finding a procedure
How long does laser tattoo removal take to have an effect?
Laser tattoo removal is generally done over several sessions: around 10 is a common number, but it could take more.
Regular smokers often need additional sessions, with the habit linked to a 70 per cent decrease in successful removal.
Your dermatologist will typically tell you how many sessions they think it may take when you have your initial consultation. Each session can take between just two and 30 minutes.
What are the side-effects?
The treated skin may become slightly swollen immediately afterwards. It may also scab – so avoid the temptation to pick as it can slow down the healing.
In rare cases, potential complications include:
- A slight change in skin tone.
Speak to your doctor if you are concerned in any way.
How effective are the results?
You will generally need several sessions of laser tattoo removal to break down the ink sufficiently.
Remember that some tattoos cannot be totally removed and are instead faded to be covered up with a new design.
Complete tattoo removal
Even when we talk about complete removal, you can still expect to see the odd slight trace of lines or colour.
Clinics can’t promise that every last bit of your tattoo will be removed, as there are so many factors to consider. The colour and ink used, your skin, and how well your immune system performs all contribute to the end result.
Tattoo fade for a cover-up
This is a bit more straightforward as laser treatment can fade most tattoos enough for a cover-up tattoo to be done over the top.
What makes a tattoo hard to remove?
- Colour – yellow and white designs can be more resistant to the laser.
- Thickness – heavy black lines are likely to be more difficult to fade.
- Design – tribal designs or cover-ups tend to be harder to shift.
- Placement – small, bony areas like your wrist can be more difficult to treat.
How do I find laser tattoo removal near me?
Look for a dermatologist with experience in laser tattoo removal. You can start by using our clinic finder tool to compare clinics and read reviews.
For an idea of pricing, you can also check out our guide to laser tattoo removal costs.
Is it safe?
Laser tattoo removal is generally considered to be a safe treatment provided you are booked into a reputable clinic.
That said, you should avoid it if you are:
- Recently suntanned.
- Currently wearing fake tan.
Tattoo removal facts
Tattoos date back to prehistoric times – with a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Alps found to have signs of 50 tattoos on its body.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the first-ever laser tattoo removal was performed –and carried out by University of Cincinnati dermatologist Leon Goldman.
In 2007, researchers at Harvard came up with a type of ink that could be removed completely with just one laser treatment. Created by the Freedom 2 collective, it dissolves naturally.
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