Clean Slate: What to Know About Tattoo Removal

Medically Reviewed by Mohiba Tareen, MD on August 06, 2019

photo of doctor patient consult

Today's removal techniques make it possible to erase what you thought was permanent and give you a do-over. But skip the creams, do-it-yourself kits, and home removal techniques like salabrasion, says Elizabeth Geddes-Bruce, MD, a dermatologist in Austin, TX. “They're not very safe or effective. We recommend you avoid these products to ensure you don't make the area appear worse,” she says. She answers some common questions.

Can a tattoo really be fully removed, and does it matter if I have light or dark skin?

Yes, it's possible to completely remove all of the ink in a tattoo. In general, older tattoos and single-color tattoos respond better to laser removal. Skin color only affects which laser wavelength is used, not the response of the tattoo.

Can I go to a tattoo shop for removal, or should I see a dermatologist?

It's best to see a board-certified dermatologist to safely remove your tattoo with minimal side effects. Dermatologists are medically trained skin and laser experts and can help you achieve the best results.

How do dermatologists remove tattoos?

We mostly use Q-switched lasers, which emit high-energy bursts very quickly to target the ink and minimize scarring. Occasionally we may use fractionated lasers to feather scarred areas or attempt to remove stubborn pigment. Some dermatologists use another method called picosecond lasers, which emit an even faster pulse of light to break up the tattoo color particles.

How long does it take, and do I need more than one visit?

The treatment time is generally very quick, usually ranging from seconds to a few minutes, depending on the size of the tattoo. The visit may be longer if topical or injectable numbing is offered. The number of visits is almost impossible to predict because each person responds differently to laser treatment.

Will it hurt?

Laser tattoo removal can be very painful, so we often offer numbing with a topical cream, shots with a numbing solution, and distracting techniques like vibration or cool air.

What's the recovery like?

Recovery depends on how aggressive the treatment is and can range from mild redness to crusting to occasional blisters. In general, skin is healed in about a week.

What will my skin look like?

Right after the treatment, your tattoo may temporarily appear white, and then the skin will turn red. After the tattoo is removed, you may have normal-looking skin or a slightly lighter shadow of the prior tattoo. This can fade over time or with the help of fractionated lasers.

Are there risks?

There are risks of temporary or long-lasting lightening or darkening of your skin, changes in skin texture, changes in tattoo color, or incomplete removal.

4 Tips

Ready to erase your ink? These tips from Geddes-Bruce may help you get the results you're looking for.

  • Avoid the sun. Keep the area being treated protected from the sun. Tan skin can increase your risk of burns and make treatments less effective.
  • Stock up on ointment. After treatment, keep the area protected with an ointment like Aquaphor to help it heal better.
  • Trust an expert. Seek out an expert in tattoo removal to maximize your chances of getting rid of it right. The cheapest offer probably won't give you the best results.
  • Be patient. The best results happen when laser treatments are spaced further apart. Every 6 to 8 weeks is usually better than monthly.

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