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Tattoo Supplies

Sometimes people get a permanent tattoo then later decide they no longer want it. Life situations change or maybe the tattoo just didn’t come out as hoped. Removing a tattoo isn’t as easy as it might seem. It can be painful, and risks include possible scarring and infection. When done by a trained health care professional, laser tattoo removal can be safe and effective. Want to remove a tattoo? Talk with a health care professional about the laser procedure, expectations, benefits, and risks.

While state and local authorities oversee the practice of tattooing, the inks and pigments used in tattoos are subject to U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight as cosmetics. The FDA takes action to protect consumers when safety issues arise related to the inks.

At the other end of the tattoo process, the FDA also regulates laser devices used to remove tattoos. The FDA has cleared for marketing several types of lasers for tattoo lightening or removal. The lasers are cleared for use by, or under the supervision of, a health care professional. Laser tattoo removal requires using the correct type of laser, understanding the reaction of tissue to laser, and knowing how to treat the area after the procedure.

Laser Tattoo Removal

Tattoos that are applied with a needle are meant to be permanent.

Artists create tattoos by using an electrically powered machine that moves a needle up and down to inject ink into the skin, penetrating the epidermis, or outer layer, and depositing a drop of ink into the dermis, the second layer of skin. The cells of the dermis are more stable compared with those of the epidermis, so the ink will mostly stay in place for a person’s lifetime.

Permanent makeup also is a type of tattoo that is applied to look like eyebrows or eyeliner or lip liner, for example.

Laser tattoo removal is the most common method health care professionals use to remove or lighten tattoos. The laser light energy shatters the tattoo ink into small particles, which the body’s immune system clears over time.

The type of laser used to remove a tattoo depends on the tattoo’s colors. Because different colors of ink absorb different wavelengths of light, multi-colored tattoos may require the use of multiple lasers. Colors such as green, red, and yellow are the hardest colors to remove, while dark blue and black are the easiest. Flesh-colored tattoos, white ink, and permanent makeup are particularly tricky, because the pigment in these colors can oxidize (turn black) when treated by laser. Oxidized pigment is no longer treatable by laser.

Laser tattoo removal requires multiple treatments with a few weeks in between procedures to give the skin time to heal. The length and number of treatments depends on several factors, including the size of the tattoo and the colors used. Complete removal of the tattoo can take many treatments, and in some cases may not be possible.

Pain and Side Effects of Laser Tattoo Removal

Does tattoo removal hurt? Laser tattoo removal is like snapping a thin rubber band against the skin. If it is painful, a small amount of numbing cream can be applied to the skin before the procedure.

Laser tattoo removal can leave behind skin that is lighter than the skin around it. Other risks include possible scarring, infection, pinpoint bleeding, redness, or soreness, none of which should last for long.

Other Methods of Tattoo Removal

Besides laser, there are other, less commonly used ways to lighten tattoos. They include:

  • Dermabrasion (“sanding” away the top layer of skin using a motorized wire brush or abrader).

  • Ablative (non-tattoo) lasers that burn off the entire top layer of skin.

  • Surgical removal of the tattooed skin.

Technically, these methods do not remove the pigment. Instead, they wound the skin above and around the pigment to stimulate an immune response that may lighten the pigment as the skin heals. The results are highly variable. At best, the pigment may be lightened, but there is greater potential for scarring and undesirable cosmetic effects. In general, the use of these methods is not optimal and less common for these reasons.

A Note About Creams

The FDA has not approved tattoo removal ointments and creams or do-it-yourself tattoo removal kits. The ingredients in these creams may include retinol, bleaching creams, and peeling agents that superficially exfoliate the skin, but they cannot reach tattoo pigment that is in the deeper dermis. The FDA has not reviewed these products and is not aware of any evidence that they are safe or effective for tattoo removal. These products may cause skin rashes, burns, or scars.

Reporting Problems with Tattoos and Tattoo Removal

If you have had an adverse (negative) reaction from tattoos, or problems with tattoo removal, you can voluntarily report them to MedWatch, the FDA’s safety information and adverse event reporting program.

Additional Resources

Tattoo Removal: Options and Results

How does tattoo removal work?

Each type of tattoo removal works differently. The goal of tattoo removal is to break down permanent ink particles into smaller particles that your immune system can safely remove from your body. This is how laser tattoo removal and tattoo removal creams function with a lower risk of scarring. Dermabrasion, chemical peels and surgical excision focus on removing skin or layers of skin that have permanent tattoo ink particles. This allows your skin to heal around where a tattoo used to be to make it look like the tattoo was never there in the first place. This usually causes scarring.

Does tattoo removal hurt?

Depending on what type of tattoo removal you choose, there may be varying levels of pain or discomfort. Some people say that removal feels the same as getting a tattoo, while others liken it to the feeling of a rubber band being snapped against their skin. Your skin may be sore after the procedure.

Certain procedures are painful, which is why your surgeon may give you general anesthesia or a dermatologist will apply a topical or inject a local anesthetic to your skin.

Who is a candidate for tattoo removal?

You might be a candidate for tattoo removal if you:

  • Have a tattoo you want removed.

  • Are in good health.

  • Don’t smoke.

  • Have realistic expectations for the procedure.

  • Understand the risks and possible side effects of the treatment.

Why do people get tattoos removed?

Everyone has their own reason for wanting to remove a tattoo. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • You don’t like your tattoo anymore.

  • Your job doesn’t allow visible tattoos.

  • Your tattoo reminds you of someone or something that had a negative impact on your life.

Procedure Details

What are the types of tattoo removal?

There are different types of tattoo removal available, including:

  • Laser tattoo removal: Lasers are focused beams of light directed onto your skin. Lasers heat up the ink particles in your skin to break them down into smaller particles, which are easier for your immune system to remove. It can take multiple laser therapy sessions to remove a tattoo.

  • Dermabrasion: Dermabrasion is a type of surgical procedure where a special tool removes the outer layers of your skin that contain tattoo ink. You’ll need a local or general anesthetic for this procedure. After the procedure, you’ll have an open wound on your skin that needs to heal.

  • Chemical peels: Chemical peels use chemicals like trichloroacetic acid to remove permanent ink from your skin. A provider will apply the chemical to your skin, which will cause the outer layers of your skin to peel.

  • Surgical excision: A surgical excision is a surgical procedure to cut out the skin that contains a tattoo. A surgeon will stitch your remaining skin together after removing the tattooed skin. This procedure works well with small tattoos and isn’t effective for large tattoos.

  • Tattoo removal creams: Tattoo removal creams are available but aren’t as successful at removing tattoos as other therapies. You can use tattoo removal creams at home by rubbing the cream onto your skin where you have an unwanted tattoo. Most tattoo removal creams contain acids that can irritate or damage your skin. Tattoo removal creams work slowly, so it could take several months of regular use before you see results.

What is the process of a laser tattoo removal procedure?

Before your procedure, you’ll meet with a trained, certified physician who’ll evaluate your situation and inform you about the process. They’ll evaluate your skin and may ask questions that could include:

  • When did you get this tattoo?

  • Have you undergone any prior tattoo removal procedures?

  • Was the tattoo was applied by an amateur or professional?

Your provider will also measure the size of your tattoo and they might take a photo of it to record the results of your procedure. Your provider will choose a treatment plan based on the type and color of ink in the tattoo and the depth of the tattoo pigment in your body.

During a laser tattoo removal procedure, you can expect the following to happen:

  • You’ll wear protective eye shields.

  • Your skin’s reaction to the laser is tested to determine the most effective energy for the treatment.

  • The treatment itself consists of placing a hand piece against the surface of your skin and activating the laser light repeatedly (pulse) over the surface of the tattoo.

Smaller tattoos require fewer pulses and larger ones require more. In either case, the tattoo requires multiple visits for treatments. After each treatment, the tattoo should become lighter.

After each session, your healthcare provider will give you instructions about how to take care of your skin.

Why does it take more than one session to remove a tattoo with laser tattoo removal?

It takes more than one session to remove a tattoo because when you got your tattoo, your tattoo artist applied the ink in layers. Because lasers break the ink pigment into smaller particles, it then takes some time between sessions for your body to flush out the ink. Your skin also needs time to heal. If you receive laser treatments, the procedure can sometimes cause swelling and blistering and can temporarily alter the color of your skin. Sometimes, superficial scarring may develop or your skin may be permanently discolored.

Will laser tattoo removal completely remove my tattoo?

Each person’s tattoo removal process is different. It’s relatively common for tattoo removal to not remove a tattoo completely. But some tattoo removal procedures will completely remove the tattoo from your body. When tattoo removal isn’t 100% successful, some colors of tattoo dye resist removal, and some pigment is too deep for lasers to reach, for example. Certain colors may be easier to remove than others. Blue or black tattoos respond well to laser treatment because they’re better at absorbing light.

Can I remove a tattoo at home?

There are some types of at-home tattoo removals that aren’t recommended by healthcare providers because they may damage your skin or cause an infection.

Tattoo removal creams are a type of at-home treatment where you rub a cream on your skin as you would a lotion. Tattoo removal creams claim to break down the permanent ink particles in your skin using strong chemicals. The success of tattoo removal creams varies, and many people experience skin irritation after using the cream.

Another type of at-home tattoo removal process is salabrasion, which is the removal of the top layers of your skin using an aggressive salt rub. This type of tattoo removal can cause pain or lead to an infection.

If you want to remove a tattoo, visit a healthcare provider or a dermatologist and don’t try to remove your tattoo on your own at home.

How do I find a doctor to remove my tattoo?

If you’re interested in tattoo removal, start by visiting a primary care provider. They may be able to recommend a dermatologist or surgeon who specializes in tattoo removal. As there are several different choices for tattoo removal, you may want to consider your options by having a consultation with both a surgeon and dermatologist to get their opinions on what type of removal procedure is best for you.

How long does tattoo removal take?

Each type of tattoo removal takes a different amount of time depending on the size, color and location of your tattoo. It could range from a few minutes for laser tattoo removal or a few hours for surgical excision. You may need several tattoo removal sessions, especially if you choose laser tattoo removal. It can take between six and 12 visits and sometimes more before you see results.

How do I take care of my skin after tattoo removal?

Your healthcare provider or surgeon will discuss instructions on how you should take care of your skin after a tattoo removal procedure.

Immediately after treatment, you can apply an ice pack to soothe the treated area. You may need to apply a topical antibiotic cream or ointment to your skin. You should use a bandage to protect the site.

You can shower the next day, but it’s best to avoid scrubbing the affected area. You should also cover the treated area with sunscreen when you go outdoors. Try not to pick at your skin after treatment because it could lead to scarring.

Risks / Benefits

Is tattoo removal safe?

Yes, tattoo removal is safe if you get your tattoo removed by a licensed or certified healthcare provider who specializes in tattoo removal.

Thanks to newer technology, the treatment of tattoos with laser systems has become much more effective, with lower risk of scarring. Just remember that this advice is in general and shouldn’t replace your provider’s guidance. For details about your specific case, arrange a visit with a healthcare provider who’s experienced in tattoo removal.

What are the benefits of a tattoo removal procedure?

The benefits of tattoo removal include:

  • Effectively get rid of unwanted tattoos.

  • Improve your appearance and self-confidence.

  • Limited recovery time after laser removal.

  • A minimal amount of pain or discomfort.

  • It’s relatively safe.

What are the risks or complications of this procedure?

As with any procedure, there are potential risks associated with tattoo removal procedures, which could include:

You shouldn’t try to remove your tattoo by yourself at home. At best, efforts will be ineffective. At worst, they could be dangerous to your health.

Tattoo removal at a tattoo parlor or spa, while perhaps safer than home remedies, still carry some risks. A trained dermatologist can better consider your overall health and more responsibly guide you on the safest treatment plan.

Does tattoo removal cause scars?

Yes, some types of tattoo removal can cause scars. You can prevent the likelihood of scarring by taking care of your skin after a removal procedure or session and following your healthcare provider’s aftercare instructions.

Recovery and Outlook

How many sessions does it take to remove a tattoo?

The amount of sessions it takes to remove a tattoo depends on the size and color of the ink of your tattoo. It’s much easier to apply a tattoo than to remove one. For laser tattoo removal, it could take between six and 12 sessions before you see final results on your skin. Talk to your healthcare provider about how many sessions it could take to remove your tattoo.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I see a healthcare provider?

Visit your healthcare provider if you’re interested in getting a tattoo removed.

If you undergo a tattoo removal procedure and you have side effects like severe pain or swelling, visit your provider or go to the emergency room immediately.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The old saying “think before you ink” remains good advice for anyone considering getting a tattoo. Body art is more permanent than you might realize at first. Modern laser or surgery methods, when overseen by qualified medical professionals, are safer and better than previous alternatives for tattoo removal.

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