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Laser tattoo removal
















Why would I want laser tattoo removal?

Tattoos can seem a great idea when they are first performed, but over the years fashions and tastes change, making a design outdated and unwanted. Also, a tattoo on a visible part of the body such as the forearm may be a problem for certain jobs, where the design or tattoo itself may be considered inappropriate. Commonly, a tattoo has been performed of a partners' name - this may be an unwanted reminder in the event of a subsequent break-up of the relationship.


How do lasers work to remove tattoos?

Lasers are essentially very strong pulses of light at a specific wavelength (read more about laser science here). When attempting to reduce the appearance of a tattoo, the colours used in the artwork will dictate which lasers are needed to target the inks. Because of this, a number of different lasers may be needed to treat a tattoo with many different colours, whilst a tattoo with a single colour (eg black) may respond well to just one laser.

The ink in a tattoo is made up of lots of small particles. The laser light is absorbed by the ink, causing it to heat up and break into lots of tiny particles. These can then be absorbed by the body, causing the tattoo to fade.


How is laser tattoo removal performed?

Whilst laser tattoo removal can be slightly painful, a general anaesthetic (going to sleep) is very rarely needed. Usually, cold air or a cold jet spray is applied to the treated area, reducing the pain. Whilst this may be tolerated for small areas, larger areas may need a numbing cream or injection to the area before treatment.

A test patch is usually performed, whereby a small area is treated first. This lets the specialist decide which settings will work best for your tattoo. The area is then checked after a few weeks, to look for any signs of complications (see below) and if all has healed well then the rest of the tattoo can be treated.

A number of treatments (6-10) may be needed depending on the tattoo, with professional tattoos being more difficult to remove as the ink may be deeper in the skin. After each treatment the tattoo should fade, eventually fading to a point where it is barely visible. For this reason, many laser specialists call the treatment 'laser tattoo reduction', rather than 'removal'.


What are the risks of laser tattoo removal?

There are a number of risks and complications including:

  • Bruising/burning/blistering/scarring - as lasers heat up the tattoo ink, the skin can often also overheat and usually bruises and can blister. Occasionally this can result in a burn which heals by scarring. In most cases the scarring area is small but can, in some cases, be more extensive.

  • Partial response or non-response - if the ink was placed deep in the skin during the tattooing, then the laser may not be able to reach this and so treatment results may be limited. Also, certain ink colours (eg white, yellow) respond very poorly to lasers and other tattoo treatments may then be needed. Results can also depend on what type of ink was used by the tattoo artist as many different compounds can be used to create similar colours - some respond well to laser treatment whilst others do not.

  • Change in pigmentation - often, at the same time as the laser reducing the ink colour, the colour of the skin itself may also be affected in the treated area. This can result in hypopigmentation (paleness of skin) or hyperpigmentation (darkening of skin). This effect may be temporary, lasting a few months, or can be lifelong.

  • Pain - the treated area can feel sore for a day or two after treatment, which usually responds well to simple painkillers. Larger areas though can cause more pain which could need stronger pain relief.

  • Infection - blistered and broken skin can allow infection to enter, resulting in a red inflamed area. This may require antibiotics, but could potentially increase the chances of scarring and pigment changes.

  • Change in tattoo colour - artists may use various dyes to make up a colour and can add certain materials to make the tattoo look more vibrant or change hues. These additives can react with lasers and change the colour of the tattoo, sometimes turning a light colour into a dark/black colour, which can be permanent. Test patching may help discover this, limiting the affecting area to a small patch only.


This list of risks is not exhaustive, and you should discuss possible complications with your specialist. Whilst these risks will seem very worrysome, and indeed can be serious, it should also be borne in mind that many people have no/minimal postoperative problems.


Other SurgeryWise articles

You may also be interested to read our articles on other tattoo removal methods, dermabrasion, Laser or other Cosmetic surgery articles


The information provided is as a guide only and you should discuss matters fully with your specialist before deciding if this is the right procedure for you. Please also read our disclaimer






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