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Laser Removal of Tattoos

It is estimated that close to 25% of the U.S. population has some sort of tattoo. Eventually, as many as 50% of individuals with tattoos may want to have their tattoos removed.

There is good news for those who have an unwanted body design: Newer laser tattoo removal techniques can eliminate or lighten your tattoo with minimal side effects. Lasers remove tattoos by breaking up the pigment colors with a high-intensity light beam. Black tattoo pigment absorbs all laser wavelengths, making it the easiest to treat. Other colors, such as red, selectively absorb green laser light. Various colors can only be treated by selected lasers based upon the pigment color.

Who can benefit from laser tattoo removal?

Because each tattoo is unique, removal techniques must be tailored to suit each individual case. In the past, tattoos could be removed by a variety of methods but, in many cases, the scars were more unsightly than the tattoo itself.

Patients with previously treated tattoos may also be candidates for laser therapy. Tattoos that have not been effectively removed by other treatments or through home remedies may respond well to laser therapy, providing the prior treatments did not result in excessive scarring.

How do I find a doctor to removal my tattoo?

You want to make sure you find a reputable dermatologist to ensure proper treatment and care. If possible, you should obtain a recommendation from your family physician for a dermatologist or skin surgery center that specializes in tattoo removal.

What can I expect during the laser tattoo removal?

Depending on the size and color of your tattoo, the number of treatments will vary. Your tattoo may be removed in four to six visits, although many more sessions might be necessary. You should schedule a consultation, during which a trained professional will evaluate your personal situation and inform you about the process.

Treatment with the laser varies from patient to patient depending on the age, size, and type of tattoo (amateur or professional). The color of the patient’s skin, as well as the depth to which the tattoo pigment extends, will also affect the removal technique.

In general, this is what will happen during an office visit for tattoo removal using the newer lasers:

  • The patient wears protective eye shields.
  • The skin’s reaction to the laser is tested to determine the most effective energy for treatment.
  • The treatment itself consists of placing a hand piece against the surface of the skin and activating the laser light. As many patients describe it, each pulse feels like a grease splatter or the snapping of a rubber band against the skin.
  • Smaller tattoos require fewer pulses, while larger ones require more. In either case, the tattoo requires several treatments and multiple visits. After each treatment, the tattoo should become progressively lighter.
  • Most patients do not require any anesthesia. However, depending on the location of the tattoo and the patient's pain threshold, the physician may elect to use some form of anesthesia (topical anesthesia cream, local anesthesia injections).
  • Immediately following treatment, an ice pack is applied to soothe the treated area. The patient will then be asked to apply a topical antibiotic cream or ointment. A bandage or patch will be used to protect the site. The treated area should also be covered with a sun block when out in the sun.

What are the possible side effects?

There are minimal side effects to laser tattoo removal. However, you should consider the following factors in your decision:

  • The tattoo removal site is at risk for infection.
  • Incomplete pigment removal is relatively common as some colors of tattoo dye resist laser removal and some pigment is too deep for current lasers. There is a slight chance that the treatment can leave you with a permanent scar.
  • You may also risk hypopigmentation, where the treated skin is paler than surrounding skin, or hyperpigmentation, where the treated skin is darker than surrounding skin.
  • Cosmetic tattoos like lip liner, eyeliner, and eyebrows may darken following treatment with tattoo removal lasers. Further treatment of the darkened tattoos usually results in fading.

Is laser tattoo removal safe?

Thanks to newer technology, treatment of tattoos with laser systems has become much more effective with very little risk of scarring. Laser treatment is often safer than many traditional methods (excision, dermabrasion, or salabrasion) because of its unique ability to selectively treat pigment involved in the tattoo. In many cases, certain colors may be more effectively removed than others. It is known that blue/black tattoos respond particularly well to laser treatment — the response of other colors is under investigation.

Remember, the information provided here is designed to provide general information only and is not a replacement for a physician’s advice. For details pertaining to your specific case, please arrange a consultation with a physician experienced in the use of tattoo lasers.

Does insurance cover laser tattoo removal?

Since tattoo removal is a personal option in most cases and is considered a cosmetic procedure, most insurance carriers will not cover the process unless it is medically necessary. Physicians or surgery centers practicing tattoo removal may also require payment in full on the day of the procedure. If you are considering tattoo removal, be sure to discuss associated costs up front with the physician.

References

Adatto M. Laser Tattoo Removal: Benefits and Caveats. Medical Laser Application 2004; 19(4): 175-185.

Bernstein, EF. Laser treatment of tattoos. Clinics in Dermatology 2006; 24(1):43-55.

Laumann A. Body art. In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, Katz SI et al, editors. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine. 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Medical; 2008:Chap 100.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 3/24/2011...#8313


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