Tattoo Removal

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Tattoos can be a unique expression of self, or even represent milestones. For some people though, the ink is not only undesirable but also unsuitable for their current lifestyle; in these cases tattoo removal may become necessary to achieve happiness and satisfaction with one’s appearance.

Reasons to Remove a Tattoo

People may want tattoo removal if their tattoos are on their face or hands, which could limit job opportunities.

Removing gang or prison tattoos can be a positive step toward a healthier, safer, and more positive lifestyle.

Allergic reactions to the tattoo ink, either at the time of the tattoo or years later, can also warrant tattoo removal if the reaction can’t be controlled.

Finally, simply changing your mind–such as regretting a name tattoo–is a perfectly valid reason for removing an unwanted tattoo.

Name Tattoo (Photo by Ernest James / CC BY)
Name Tattoo (Photo by Ernest James / CC BY)

History: Tattoo Removal Old Style

Be glad you didn’t have to remove your tattoo thirty years ago. A lot has changed since then. In the past, there were only three options available for tattoo removal.


This method involved using sandpaper or something equally abrasive to rub the tattoo (read skin) off. I can only imagine how much this kind of tattoo removal hurt.


As the name implies, this tattoo removal procedure involved freezing the area before removing the skin. This option was not only painful but also not very precise.


The third of these historical tattoo removal methods was surgical removal. Excision involved a surgeon using a scalpel to remove the tattoo, stitching it up afterward, and even using a skin graft from another part of the body for larger tattoos. Yikes.

Luckily for those who have an unwanted tattoo today, laser removal has become the standard and preferred option for most people.

Laser Removal

To begin with, it’s important to note that complete removal of a tattoo using lasers may not always be feasible, as the process is complex. Laser tattoo removal also carries the risk of a permanent scar as well as skin discoloration.

However, before delving into why this is the case, let’s first discuss how laser removal works.

How a Laser Works

Essentially, lasers emit highly concentrated light that is targeted at the specific colors in the tattoo.

These short pulses of light pass through the outer layer of skin (the epidermis) and are absorbed by the pigment molecules in the deeper layer (the dermis).

This absorption of energy causes the pigment molecules to break apart, essentially vaporizing them and reducing them to smaller particles. This process should sound familiar if you’ve learned about the damage caused by UV radiation from the sun.

When the pigment particles become smaller, the immune system’s white blood cells (called macrophages) can remove them from the body.

Example of Tattoo Removal Laser (Photo by NixTheKoolest / CC BY)
Example of Tattoo Removal Laser (Photo by NixTheKoolest / CC BY)

Tuning Wavelengths to Colors

Laser wavelengths are finely tuned to target specific colors, so only the tattoo pigment is affected and not the other pigments in the tattoo or the melanin in the skin.

The extent to which a tattoo can be removed depends on numerous factors such as its size, location, the individual’s healing ability, the method of application (professional or amateur), and how long ago it was done.

With so many different types of tattoo inks available, it can be difficult to determine whether or not they can be removed. The success of laser removal is dependent on the color of the tattoo ink, with some colors being more difficult to remove than others.

Ironically, Darker Is Easier

Darker tattoos that use and blue tattoo ink are the easiest to remove. Lighter colors like green and yellow are more difficult to remove.

Generally, amateur tattoos (they might use mostly black or blue tattoo ink) would be easier to remove, but they also can be applied too deeply, making the pigment harder to access.

Professional tattoos consist of a mix colors for a gradient effect, which is more difficult to remove, but they apply the ink consistently at the same depth throughout the tattoo.

Tattoo Removal in Progress; 7 Days After 9th Session (Photo by dfrankg / CC BY)
Tattoo Removal in Progress; 7 Days After 9th Session (Photo by dfrankg / CC BY)

Oh, the Pain

I’ve been witness to the laser tattoo removal procedure in both gang clinics and private medical facilities. By all accounts, tattoo removal hurts much more than getting the tattoo in the first place.

To avoid excessive bleeding and bruising, dermatologists generally advise against taking aspirin or ibuprofen. However, they may offer some pain relief, such as a topical cream or local anesthesia injection.

Multiple Treatments

Although each laser treatment may last only a few minutes, typically multiple laser tattoo removal sessions are needed. Although smaller tattoos will require less work than large tattoos, the color (as noted above), the depth, and the location of the tattoo will also play a part.

In general, most tattoos removed will require five to fifteen laser sessions. That number can drop if a faded tattoo is your goal.

Laser Tattoo Removal Using Q-switch Laser (Photo by Alice Pien / CC BY)
Laser Tattoo Removal Using Q-switch Laser (Photo by Alice Pien / CC BY)

Spread Over Time

Typically a there is a six to eight week interval between each laser tattoo removal session to allow for healing and for the body’s immune system to carry away the broken pigment molecules.

However, that interval can vary given each person’s skin and its ability to heal. If your skin is not fully healed by the time of the next laser treatment, the wait time can be longer.

Side Effects of Laser Tattoo Removal

Although I noted this at the outset, it’s worth saying again. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there is always a risk of scarring. Although generally considered a safe procedure, scarring can occur if the laser treatments aren’t performed correctly or if your skin does not heal well (perhaps due to a skin condition).

Besides that, you might experience hyperpigmentation (too much skin color that looks darker than usual), hypopigmentation (too little skin color that appears too light), or even a lingering remnant of tattoo pigment.

To minimize the risk of any of these side effects, it’s crucial that you find a reputable and experienced practitioner, follow their pre- and post-treatment instructions carefully, and be prepared for your tattoo removal to take months and possibly even years.


Speaking of post-treatment instructions, aftercare is just as much of part of laser treatments as it is when getting a tattoo.

Although your practitioner will give you instructions, you’re likely to be cautioned against the same things that tattooists talk about: avoiding direct sun exposure, keeping the area clean, and avoiding picking or scratching the area. Optimal tattoo removal will depend on how well you follow the instructions.

Scarring from Laser Tattoo Removal (Photo by Walker915 / CC BY)
Scarring from Laser Tattoo Removal (Photo by Walker915 / CC BY)


Although you may be having your laser treatments in a medical facility, most insurance policies do not include cosmetic procedures like laser tattoo removal.

The cost of laser tattoo removal can vary wildly, depending on the size, color, and complexity of the tattoo. But on average, in very general terms, a single laser treatment could cost between $200 and $500. Because you’ll need multiple sessions, the math says you could be looking at a final total cost from $1,000 to $10,000 or more.

Finding A Tattoo Removal Practitioner

Selecting a dermatologist for your outpatient procedure is as crucial as choosing an excellent tattoo artist.

Similar to selecting a tattoo artist, a personal recommendation is the most reliable way to find a reputable dermatologist who can remove unwanted tattoos to your satisfaction (remember that no one can guarantee complete removal or prevent scarring).

If a personal recommendation is not available, you could ask your primary care physician for a referral or search for recommendations from professional organizations like the American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery, the National Laser Institute, Society for Clinical and Medical Hair Removal, or the American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons, to name a few.

It is crucial to ensure that you choose a medical doctor who specializes in laser surgery and has extensive experience in tattoo removals. Like with tattooing, experience matters, and there is a learning curve to laser tattoo removal.

Scarring from Laser Tattoo Removal (Photo by Mike Ownby / CC BY)
Scarring from Laser Tattoo Removal (Photo by Mike Ownby / CC BY)

Gang Tattoos

Laser tattoo removal has some unique considerations for individuals who were formerly in gangs.

Gang tattoos can be dangerous and prevent ex-gang members from securing decent employment or moving on with their lives. Therefore, many large cities offer tattoo removal clinics that remove these types of unwanted tattoos for free, provided that certain conditions are met.

These conditions vary from clinic to clinic, but typically, the clinics offer free tattoo removal of offensive or gang-related tattoos to people who are are pursuing constructive activities, such as education, employment, vocational training, or community service.

Priority may be given to individuals who have a job offer that is contingent upon tattoo removal. For men, tattoos on the lower arms, hands, head, and neck areas are removed, while for women, visible tattoos in professional work environments are prioritized.


With the advent laser tattoo removal technology, it’s possible to mix various techniques to alter tattoos. In other words, you might be able to remove part of a tattoo and then have it re-tattooed either to fix it or cover it up.

However, it should be noted that most dermatologists trained in tattoo removal are equipped to completely remove tattoos. If you want to selectively delete specific parts of a tattoo, it requires precision and expertise that may not be available with most tattoo removal specialists.

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that tattooed skin and skin where a tattoo has been removed will always be different. Attempting to re-tattoo around a removed area may or may not result in satisfactory outcomes. If you’re considering changing or removing a tattoo, it’s crucial to weigh all the options carefully, just as you would when getting a new tattoo.


If you’ve decided that you’re not happy with your tattoo, you have a few choices available to you: have it touched up, have it fixed, get a cover up tattoo, or have tattoo removal work. As always, be sure to get professional advice–from a tattooist, your doctor, a dermatologist, or removal practitioner–no matter which path you choose.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you remove a tattoo immediately?

Yes, you can have a tattoo removed immediately after it has completely healed, which could be as much as six to eight weeks after the tattoo was performed.

Is it painful to remove a tattoo?

Yes, it is painful to have a tattoo removal procedure. But with numbing cream or a local anesthetic, you should be able to tolerate the laser treatments. If you were able to withstand the tattoo, you’ll likely be able to withstand the laser treatment.

Can tattoos be completely removed?

Yes, it is possible to completely remove a tattoo. However, be aware that not all tattoo removal procedures are completely successful and that you run the risk of scarring and a change in pigmentation.

March 25, 2023