What should I know about tattoos and tattoo removal?

Tattooing is an ancient art. The word is derived from the Tahitian word tattau, meaning “to mark.” It’s estimated that more than 25% of the U.S. population has a tattoo, and nearly half of millennials have one.

While the popularity of tattoos is on the rise in recent years, so too is the number of people seeking to remove them, according to the American Society for Dermatological Surgery. Reasons for removal range from a change in job or lifestyle or because they simply no longer like the tattoo.

But here’s the rub: because the permanent ink granules from professional tattoos were injected below the skin’s surface when it was applied, removing a tattoo is far more complicated than applying one. It will normally take a few sessions of laser therapy to do the trick.

How does laser tattoo removal work?

Laser beams use concentrated bursts of energy to heat up the ink beneath the skin, which breaks the ink into smaller particles. Tattoos with different colors might require the use of multiple lasers operating at different frequencies. Those smaller ink particles can then be eliminated naturally by the body’s own immune system.

Will laser treatments completely remove my tattoo?

Your tattoo may not be completely removed, which is relatively common. Some colors of tattoo dye resist laser removal, and some pigment is too deep to be reached with the lasers that are currently available. Certain colors may be easier to remove than others. Blue/black tattoos respond particularly well to laser treatment, because they are better at absorbing light. The response of other colors is being studied.

Is laser tattoo removal painful?

People who have tattoos removed have reported varying levels of discomfort. Some said that it feels the same as getting a tattoo, while others liken it to the feeling of a rubber band being snapped against your skin.

You may prefer to use some form of anesthesia, such as a topical cream or local injection, depending on the location of the tattoo and your ability to endure pain.

How do I find a doctor to remove my tattoo?

If possible, get a recommendation from your family physician for a dermatologist that specializes in tattoo removal.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/25/2020.

References

  • American Academy of Dermatology. Tattoo Removal: Lasers outshine other methods. Accessed 9/25/2020.
  • American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Laser Therapy for Unwanted Tattoos. Accessed 9/25/2020.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Tattoo Removal: Options and Results. Accessed 9/25/2020.
  • 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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