The Image to the right shows an example of before and after Laser Tattoo Removal treatments.

Laser tattoo removal

 

Everyone makes decisions that they regret later in life. Some people make bad financial decisions, others bad relationship decisions, and most make bad fashion decisions. If you're lucky, the mistakes you make have only temporary repercussions. If you're not lucky, one of your mistakes was getting a tattoo. Tattoos have become part of mainstream culture over the past couple of decades. Some estimate that more than 10 million people have at least one tattoo, and there are at least 4,000 tattoo studios now in business in North America. Tattooing has grown significantly in popularity over that last 10 years. While so many people want one, there are an increasing number of people that want their tattoos removed. It is estimated that about fifty percent of those who get tattoos, later regret them. For years, those who outgrew their body art had little recourse. The existing removal techniques were invasive (surgery), painful and caused so much trauma to the skin that they left scars that were as large and offensive as the original design. That is, until laser therapy.

 

In order to understand how tattoo removal works, it is necessary to know something about the tattooing process. A needle attached to a hand-held "gun" is used to inject the desired pigment. It vibrates several hundred times per minute and reaches a depth of about a millimeter. The ink must penetrate past the top layer of skin, the epidermis, because its cells divide and die very rapidly. The dermis, or the second layer, is much more stable so the design will last with only minor fading and dispersion. The ink is insoluble and will not absorb into the body. Typically, a scab forms over the design and the wound heals within 3 weeks.

As early as the 1960's, scientists began exploring the medical uses of lasers to correct birthmarks such as port-wine stains. Eventually, researchers determined lasers are effective in tattoo removal because heat generated from the beam breaks pigments in the cells of the dermis into small particles, which can be absorbed by the body's immune system. The epidermis is "transparent," meaning that the laser travels through it and focuses on the exact level of the pigment. This chars the ink and it then breaks down. The tattoo subsequently fades as immune cells attack the foreign particles. The color of the ink and the quality of the tattoo also play a role in laser removal. Black ink absorbs all laser wavelengths, which makes it the easiest to treat. Blue is also fairly easy while green and yellow are the hardest.

The first lasers used for tattoo removal were the Argon and the CO2. They broke down the ink, but at the cost of the other layers of skin. Just as with abrasion and excision therapies, scarring was left in place of the design. Only three lasers have been proven effective in breaking down ink without damaging the surrounding skin- the Q-switched Ruby, Q-switched Alexandrite, and most recently the Q-switched Nd: YAG. They are referred to as "Q-switched" because of the short, high-energy pulses of light used in the procedure.

No matter what condition the tattoo is in, laser removal is a bloodless, low risk alternative. It is usually performed in multiple sessions on an outpatient basis. It is expected that no more than 10% of the tattoo ink will break down and fade with each treatment. Side-effects are generally mild. Redness and swelling are common immediately following the procedure and the treated site will likely form a scab. There is a possibility of hyperpigmentation, an abundance of color in the skin at the treatment site, hypopigmentation, a lack of color at the site, or lack of pigment removal. The chance of permanent scarring is only 5 percent. Three-week intervals between sessions are required to allow pigment residue to be absorbed by the body.

 

Complete tattoo removal is not possible. Tattoos are meant to be permanent, so removing them is difficult. The degree of remaining color variations or blemishes depends upon several factors, including size, location, the individual's ability to heal, the type of ink used, how the tattoo was applied and how long it has been in place. New tattoos may also be more difficult to remove than old ones.

Typically, having a tattoo removed is more expensive than getting one put on. The cost will range from several hundred dollars to several thousand based on the size, location, pigment color, and number of visits required.