It is estimated that close to 25% of the U.S. population has a 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 methods can remove or lighten your tattoo with few side effects. Lasers remove tattoos by breaking up the pigment colors with a high-intensity light beam. Black tattoo pigment absorbs all laser lights, making it the easiest to treat. Other colors, such as red, can only absorb green laser light. The many other colors used in tattoos can only be treated by specific lasers, which are selected according to pigment color.

Who can benefit from laser tattoo removal?

Because each tattoo is unique, removal methods must be designed for each individual. In the past, tattoos could be removed by several methods. However, in many cases, the scars were more unattractive than the tattoo itself.

Patients with previously treated tattoos – by other treatment methods other than lasers -- may also benefit from laser therapy. These tattoos may respond well to laser therapy as long as prior treatments did not cause a large amount of scarring.

How do I find a doctor to remove my tattoo?

If possible, get 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 4 to 6 visits, although many more sessions might be needed. Schedule an appointment. During this appointment, 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 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 handpiece against the surface of the skin and activating the laser light. According to many patients’ descriptions, each pulse feels like a grease splatter or the snapping of a rubber band against the skin.

Smaller tattoos require fewer pulses; larger ones require more. In either case, the tattoo requires several treatments and multiple visits. After each treatment, the tattoo should become lighter.

Most patients do not require any anesthesia. However, depending on the location of the tattoo and the patient’s ability to endure pain, the physician may choose to use some form of anesthesia (such as topical anesthesia cream or local anesthesia injections).

Immediately after 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 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.
  • The pigment may not be completely removed. This is relatively common. Some colors of tattoo dye resist laser removal and some pigment is too deep to be reached with current lasers.
  • There is a slight chance that the treatment can leave a permanent scar.
  • The treated skin may either be paler than the surrounding skin (hypopigmentation) or darker than the surrounding skin (hyperpigmentation).
  • Cosmetic tattoos, such as 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) because of its unique ability to selectively treat pigment involved in the tattoo. (Excision cuts out the tattoos using a surgical knife [a scalpel]. Dermabrasion uses tools to sand off the upper layers of skin.) In many cases, certain colors may be better able to be 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 in this document is general. It does not replace the physician’s advice. For details about your specific case, please arrange a meeting with a physician experienced in the use of tattoo lasers.

Does insurance cover laser tattoo removal?

In most cases, tattoo removal is a personal choice and therefore considered a cosmetic procedure. Most insurance carriers will not pay for tattoo removal unless it is medically needed. Physicians or surgery centers that perform tattoo removal may also require payment-in-full on the day of the procedure. If you are considering tattoo removal, be sure to talk to the physician about all related costs before having the procedure.

  • American Academy of Dermatology, “New and improved laser and light treatments take aim at cellulite, fat, tattoos, wrinkles, and sagging skin.” News release issued Mar. 21, 2014. Accessed 4/20/2015.
  • American Academy of Dermatology, “Lasers lighting the way for enhanced treatment of melasma and tattoo removal.” News release issued Feb. 7, 2012. Accessed 4/20/2015.
  • American Academy of Dermatology Tattoo removal: Lasers outshine other methods Accessed 4/20/2015.
  • 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: 4/20/2015...#8313