Tattoo Removal: Choices, Costs & Techniques

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nearly 45 million Americans have tattoos.  Over the course of their lives, over half of them will look for a way to have the tattoo removed.

laser-tattoo-removal-7laser-tattoo-removal-6laser-tattoo-removal-5There are a variety of ways that individuals can lessen the appearance of the tattoo, including fading creams, but complete removal is difficult and more expensive than the original tattoo.  Tattoos are considered permanent…so removing the design and the color takes the expertise of a highly trained professional.  Options for removal include at home fade cream systems, laser therapy, dermabrasion and surgical removal; laser removal is considered the safest option and most effective option for most individuals.

If you’re one of those regretting a permanent tattoo, here’s an overview of your options:

1. Dermabrasion

Dermabrasion is a medical procedure performed by cosmetic surgeons to refinish damaged skin.  The surgeon carefully guides the head of the tool over the skin to remove damaged tissue, scars, and tattoos.  Several treatments may be required to significantly lessen the appearance of the tattoo.  It is important to note that dermabrasion is different from microdermabrasion; microdermabrasion is similar, however does not remove as much skin and is not considered a medical procedure.  Many spas and other centers can do microdermabrasion, but only plastic surgeons and dermatologists can do dermabrasion.  Microdermabrasion is not recommended for the removal of tattoos; the process simply does not penetrate enough layers of the skin to be effective.

2. Surgical Excision

Surgical excision for unwanted tattoos is a more invasive option that dermabrasion or laser tattoo removal.  Smaller tattoos may be good candidates for this option.  Only a dermatological surgeon or plastic surgeon can perform surgical removal of tattoos.  The process involves using a scalpel to cut out the tattoo.  In some cases, skin grafts may be required; this can result in significantly greater costs and recovery time.  After removal is complete, the surgeon will close the wound with stitches and apply a dressing to avoid infection.  It is essential that individuals keep the area clean and follow the directions of their surgeon exactly.  It is also recommended that once it has healed that sun exposure is avoided for at least six months.

3. At-Home & Chemical Peel Fade Cream

The primary benefit to treating a tattoo at home is the cost.  Having a tattoo removed professionally is expensive.  At-home fade kits are effective for some individuals desiring to lighten the appearance of an unwanted tattoo; however, they are not effective for every individual.  A microdermabrasion appliance, fade cream and other solutions to help lighten the tattoo accompany often the fade cream to create a total solution.  This tattoo removal process can take anywhere from four to six months with continued use.  Directions must be followed exactly to ensure the best results.  Where laser therapy is better for darker pigmented tattoos, these at-home tattoo removal systems are better for lighter tattoos.  Results vary dramatically; however, for people that are considering a removal procedure, this non-invasive and relatively inexpensive method is worth trying.

4. Laser Therapy

With laser therapy, a cosmetic surgeon glides a high-intensity laser over the tattoo to break up the pigment colors while short light pulses penetrate the skin.  The laser breaks up the color and then the body’s immune system flushes it out over a period of weeks and months. Patients can expect anywhere from two to six sessions to remove the tattoo.  Many individuals report that the pulses feel like a grease splatter or the snapping of a rubber band on the skin.  Most patients do not require anesthesia, however, numbing creams may be used depending on the individual’s pain sensitivity.

Note: Each tattoo and each individual are different and subsequently your treatment protocol will vary.  The U.S. FDA has approved several different types of lasers for tattoo removal.  Lasers are an effective tool for cosmetic and plastic surgeons, but you should make sure of the experience and qualifications of the surgeon performing your procedure.  As usual, a second opinion to compare success rates and costs is an exceptionally good idea when selecting a surgeon.

Some other variables: Results can  depend on the size and the color of the tattoo, with dark black or blue tattoos being the easiest to remove in this process.  Darker tattoos absorb the laser wavelengths better than lighter tattoos and it make take several sessions to see the complete results.  New technology and refined lasers are much more effective and the risk of scarring is dramatically reduced.

Notes & Side Effects

Side effects for laser tattoo removal are mild.  There may be some discomfort after the procedure that is effectively treated with an ice pack.  Most patients report pain on the level of a light sun or wind burn; over the counter pain medications can be taken after the procedure.  Between appointments, it is important to keep sun exposure to the area at an absolute minimum.  A rare, but more serious possible side effect, is the occurrence of hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation.  These are where the skin that is treated either becomes paler or darker and is considered permanent condition.  In preparation for any laser procedure, doctors recommend that only non-aspirin products be used for minor aches and pains because aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents can produce pronounced bruising after treatment.

Before & After Removal Examples

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Further Reading:

Sources:

  • Choudhary S, Elsaie ML, Leiva A, Nouri K.  Lasers In Medical Science. 2010 Sep 25 (5):619-27.  Lasers for tattoo removal:  a review.
  • Kuperman-Beade M, Levine VJ, Ashinoff R.  American Journal of Clinical Dermatology.  2001: 2(1) 21-5.  Laser removal for tattoos.
  • Kilmer SL.  Dermatological Clinics 1997 Jul;15(3):409-17. Laser treatment of tattoos.
  • Grevelink JM, Duke D, van Leeuwen RL, Gonzalez E, DeCoste SD, Anderson RR.  Journal of American Academy of Dermatology.  1996 Apr; 34(4):653-6 
About Kathleen - Clearly You Staff

Kathleen McCoy is professional beauty, education and healthcare analyst and writer. A University of Maryland graduate, Kathleen has traveled and studied extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America covering skin care and natural beauty techniques from around the globe.

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