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Tattoo Removal Process, Cost, and Results

Demand for tattoo removal has been rising, which is a logical result of the growing number of people in the United States who tattoo their bodies. A 2006 survey by the American Academy of Dermatology indicated that 24 percent of people from 18 to 50 years of age have a tattoo. Additionally the survey revealed that 17 percent had considered getting a tattoo removed.

With the invention of laser surgery, the permanency of tattoos can be undone. Surgical lasers use pulses of intense light to fragment the tattoo pigments so that they can be gradually absorbed by the body's natural immune system cleaning functions. Although the tattoo pigments will remain in the body, they will be out of the skin.

Quick facts about tattoo removal:

  • The color of the tattoo ink determines the type of laser used during the tattoo removal surgery. Wavelengths of light are fine tuned to target various types of tattoo ink.
  • Yellow and green are the most difficult tattoo colors to remove. This is because these colors only absorb a fraction of the light from the lasers.
  • Black and blue are the easiest tattoo colors to remove. Black tattoo ink is able to absorb the full spectrum of laser light and therefore is most quickly affected by the laser removal procedure.
  • Two categories of lasers are available for tattoo removal: ablative and nonablative. An ablative laser removes the skin. A nonablative laser passes through the top layers of skin with minimal damage and hits the tattoo inks within the subcutaneous tissue layers.
  • More than one laser treatment is almost always needed to remove a tattoo. For more complex tattoos involving multiple colors or large tattoos, a series of multiple laser treatments over a period of months or years will be needed to remove the tattoo.

When people get tattoos, they know going in that the application and recovery will be painful. But when someone decides to have a tattoo removed, he or she will experience more pain during the tattoo removal. The discomfort of laser tattoo removal has been described as similar to the sensation of being hit with hot spatters of bacon grease or being snapped by a thin rubber band. During treatments, a topical anesthetic cream may be provided or even a local anesthetic. Although people experience pain in different ways, the increased pain is guaranteed during tattoo removal because of the multiple treatments that are necessary.

With multiple treatments comes a higher cost than when a person initially receives a tattoo. People can easily spend from $1,000 to $1,500 to have tattoos removed. For larger tattoos, the cost would go higher. Typically, a person can expect removal to cost 10 times the original cost of a tattoo.

Laser removal of tattoos does not always produce perfect results. Factors that can limit the effectiveness of removal include how deeply the ink was injected into the skin, the types of inks used, and the location of the tattoo.

Possible side effects of tattoo removal are:

  • Scarring
  • Faint or shadow remnants of the tattoo
  • Darkening of the skin in the treated area
  • Lightening of the skin in the treated area

The passage of time sometimes resolves these issues. Once laser removal has gotten a tattoo down to a very faint appearance, the dermatologist might recommend that the patient wait nine months to a year to see if the pigments fade the rest of the way.

Because laser surgery is a delicate medical procedure, it is recommended that people find a dermatologist that specializes in tattoo removal. This advice is becoming easier to follow because increasing demand for tattoo removal has prompted more dermatologists to specialize in the service.

And, as when getting a tattoo, removal carries the risk of infection and laser surgery sites need time to heal – three to six weeks – between treatments. Tattoo removal is a long, drawn out process that is expensive. When people regret a tattoo decision, however, laser treatments provide a reasonably effective escape from permanent tattoos. Aside from laser treatments, the other options are to live with the tattoo or cover it up and correct it with a new tattoo design.

Sources:

"Body Piercing and Tattoos" edited by J.D. Lloyd, Greenhaven Press, 2003.

"Shedding her tattoos: One woman's story" by Dawn Sagario, The Des Moines Register, October 31, 2007.

"Tats all, folks: Body-art removal business booms" by Dawn Sagario, The Des Moines Register, October 31, 2007.

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