Laser Tattoo Removal: Is It Safe?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 22, 2023
10 min read

Nearly 30% of people in the U.S. have at least one tattoo. Almost half of all millennials have one. But not all of them are happy about their decision. As many as 25% of those with a tattoo say they regret getting it.

If you’re in that 25%, there is good news. Laser tattoo removal techniques can significantly diminish the appearance of your unwanted tattoo with minimal side effects.

Laser tattoo removal is a treatment to help diminish the appearance of unwanted tattoos. During this treatment, dermatologists or technicians use lasers to send out high-intensity pulses of light that target the ink inside your tattoo but leave the skin around it alone. As the ink absorbs these pulses of light, it begins to heat up. This heat makes the ink break into tiny pieces, which your immune system can then clear away. Your tattoo starts to fade as the ink goes away.

Lasers remove tattoos by breaking up the pigment colors with a high-intensity light beam. Black tattoo pigment absorbs all laser wavelengths, making it the easiest color to treat. Other colors can only be treated by selected lasers based upon the pigment color.

You should first schedule a consultation with a trained professional who can evaluate your tattoo and advise you on the process. The number of treatments you need will depend on the age, size, and color(s) of your tattoo. The color of your skin, as well as how deep the tattoo pigment goes, will also affect the removal technique.

In general, this is what you should expect during a laser tattoo removal session:

  1. The doctor or technician will answer any questions and make sure it's OK with you to go ahead. Let them know if you have any concerns.
  2. They might take a picture of your tattoo to show the “before” and “after.”
  3. You’ll be given a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes, and the doctor or technician will clean your skin and let it dry.
  4. If you have darker skin, your doctor might put a cold pack or cooling gel on the area.
  5. The doctor or technician will either give you a shot of numbing medication or put numbing cream on the area they’re going to be treating. 
  6. They might do a quick test patch to see how your skin reacts. This will help them decide what kind of lasers and techniques will give you the best results.
  7. The doctor or technician will use the laser to pass pulses of light through your skin. The ink in your tattoo absorbs this light and starts to break up. They might pass the laser over your tattoo at least a few times, and sometimes they wait a little while in between passes. 
  8. It can be uncomfortable, but tell your doctor or technician if you’re in a lot of pain so that they can change what they’re doing, if needed.

Smaller tattoos will require fewer pulses, while larger ones will need more to remove them. In either case, it takes several treatments to completely get rid of a tattoo. After each visit, your tattoo should become lighter.

Laser tattoo removal can be uncomfortable, but there are ways to help deal with the pain. 

Before they start using the laser on you, your doctor will give you numbing cream or a shot of numbing medication in the area they’re treating. They can also do a small test patch to see how painful the laser is for you, and to make sure it’s working well.

After a treatment session, your skin might feel sore or swollen. You can put an ice pack on it to make it feel better. Your doctor might also tell you to take an over-the-counter pain medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen before or after your treatment sessions.

How much pain you feel will depend on where your tattoo is, the kind of lasers your doctor uses, and other details. Some people say that the laser feels like a rubber band being snapped against their skin. Other people think it hurts about the same or less than it did to get the tattoo. Tell your doctor if you feel a lot of pain during or after a treatment session. 

Your doctor will tell you how to care for your skin after each laser tattoo removal session. Make sure to ask them if you have any questions. These tips can help your skin heal and prevent scarring.

  • Use ice packs. Putting ice on the area right after treatment will lessen pain and swelling. It will also help your skin heal. 
  • Put antibiotic ointment or cream on the area for a few days. The antibiotic will help you avoid infection, and the ointment can feel soothing on your skin.
  • Wear a bandage or wrap – and change it often. This helps your skin stay dry and prevents infection. Keep the area covered until it heals. 
  • Use petroleum jelly or unscented moisturizer under your bandage. Put the jelly on your skin using a cotton swab or cloth. This keeps the area hydrated and stops any scabs or blisters from sticking to your bandage. 
  • Keep the area clean, but avoid scrubbing it. Wash the area with gentle, unscented soap and pat it dry. Don’t let it soak in the water, and don’t use body scrubs or washcloths.
  • Avoid tight clothing. Wearing tight clothes can irritate the area or make it more painful. Loose clothing will help your skin breathe and heal. 
  • Wear sunscreen, and avoid exposing the area to direct sunlight. Light from the sun can interact with the laser treatment and make it less effective. It also makes you more likely to get patches that are lighter or darker than the skin around them. Avoid the sun if you can, and make sure to always use sunscreen with 30 SPF or higher. Loose-fitting protective clothes can also help you keep the sunlight away from your skin as it heals. 
  • Don’t pick or scratch at scabs or blisters. This can lead to scars. Your skin will heal better if you leave it alone. Put an ice pack or bandage on the area to distract yourself if it feels itchy or you can’t stop picking at it.

Laser treatment is often safer than many other tattoo removal methods, such as excision, dermabrasion, or salabrasion because laser treatment selectively treats the pigment in the tattoo. And there are very few side effects. But you should consider these things before you decide:

  • Infection. It’s possible to get an infection if bacteria gets into the area being treated before it heals all the way. Using antibiotic ointment and keeping the area clean help prevent infection. You should call your doctor right away if you have swelling, redness, or pus after a laser treatment session. 
  • Tattoos that don’t go away completely.  It’s unlikely that your tattoo will be completely removed. In many cases, certain colors may be more effectively removed than others. Blue and black tattoos, for example, respond well to laser treatment. Colors like yellow, red, and white are harder to remove.Cosmetic tattoos like lip liner, eyeliner, and eyebrows may actually get darker after treatment. They do tend to fade over time. 
  • Changes to your skin color. You may end up with hypopigmentation, which means the skin that is treated is paler than the skin surrounding it. You could also have hyperpigmentation, which leaves the affected skin darker than the rest of your skin.
  • Scars. Some people can get scars that last forever. You are more likely to end up with scars if you pick at your skin while it’s healing, or if it gets exposed to sunlight. 
  • Allergic reactions. It’s rare, but sometimes laser treatment can loosen a chemical inside the tattoo ink that causes an allergic reaction. Because red inks are more likely to cause these allergies, your doctor might give you an allergy pill or shot before they try to remove red tattoos. 

All tattoo removal methods can leave lasting scars where your tattoo was. Out of all the different ways of getting rid of tattoos, laser tattoo removal has lower chances of leaving scars, but it can still happen.

Right after a laser tattoo removal session, you might have blisters, scabs, or flaky skin on the area they treated. It might also be itchy. It can be tempting to scratch or pick at it, but you are more likely to get scars that last if you do. 

If you find yourself picking, apply petroleum jelly or a moisturizer, and cover the area or put an ice pack on it to stop yourself. 

Keeping the area clean and protecting it from the sun while it heals also helps prevent scars. Make sure to wear sunscreen and cover the treated area if you have to be in the sun. 

If you or your family members get a kind of raised scar called keloids, there’s a small chance that you could end up with a keloid from laser tattoo removal. Keloids are more common in people with darker skin. 

Changes to your skin color

Laser tattoo removal can also cause lasting changes to your skin’s color in the area where your tattoo was.

Laser pulses that break up tattoo ink sometimes also break up melanin, the chemical in your skin that gives it color. This can create a patch that’s lighter than the skin around it, called hypopigmentation. If you have darker skin, you have a higher chance of getting hypopigmentation if the laser breaks up too much of your melanin along with your tattoo. A hypopigmentation scar might also stand out more for you than it would for people with lighter skin. 

Hyperpigmentation is another change to your skin color that can last forever. This is when pieces of ink from the tattoo clump together and make a darker patch. It’s rare, but sometimes, ink can also have a reaction to the laser that makes it get darker instead of breaking up. This is more likely to happen if your tattoo is pink, red, or white, because of chemicals that are sometimes in these colors of ink. Hyperpigmentation can be easier to notice if your skin is lighter, but it's more likely to happen if you have darker skin. 

To ensure you get proper treatment and care, find a reputable dermatologist or cosmetic surgery center. If possible, get a recommendation from your primary care doctor for a dermatologist or skin surgery center that specializes in tattoo removal.

Make sure that your doctor has experience treating people with skin like yours, especially if you have darker skin. Ask your doctor how they will take your skin color into account when they pick which lasers and techniques to use. 

There are a lot of reasons that people might want to get rid of a tattoo, and sometimes not having certain tattoos anymore can be good for your mental health. But most insurance companies don’t think tattoo removal is “medically necessary” (important for your health), so they don’t pay for it. This means that most of the time, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for laser tattoo removal. 

If you are considering tattoo removal, be sure to discuss costs up front and obtain all charges in writing before you have any treatment.

Laser tattoo removal is the safest and most effective way to get rid of a tattoo you no longer want, because it uses lasers that slowly break up the ink inside your tattoo, without hurting the skin around it. You’ll have several treatments, each at least a month apart, to make your tattoo fade as much as possible, but it might not go away completely. Before you decide to have laser treatment, you should meet with a doctor to learn about how long it might take and how well it might work for you. Make sure your doctor has experience working with people with your skin color, and be prepared to care for your skin while it heals. 

Can lasers completely remove tattoos?

Laser tattoo removal treatment can make most tattoos much harder to see, but it might not get rid of the tattoo completely.  Even if you can’t see the tattoo itself anymore, you might also have a scar, or a patch that’s darker or lighter than the skin around it. 

Before you start treatment, your doctor should do a thorough exam and ask you a lot of questions about your tattoo and your health. This will help them guess how well laser tattoo removal might work for you, and what your tattoo might look like at the end of treatment. They should let you know what to expect and how much your tattoo might fade. 

How many laser tattoo removal sessions does it take to remove a tattoo?

Everyone is different, and tattoos respond to treatment differently. Laser tattoo removal can take anywhere from four to 15 sessions, or more. Doctors recommend waiting at least a month in between sessions so that your skin has time to heal and your immune system can get rid of the broken-down tattoo ink.