- Laser tattoo removal heats the tattoo ink, sometimes to almost 300 degrees Celsius, to break it up.
- Different laser wavelengths are often required to pick up multiple colors of ink.
- New technologies have introduced a range of different types of lasers and pulses.
This tourist trap tattoo parlor can also serve as a house of regrets. But if you’ve taken the time to rethink the permanence of this misguided tattoo choice, whether done in a different state of sobriety, love, or maturity, the science of laser tattoo removal is here to help.
Here’s what you need to know about how laser tattoo removal works before you decide to go under the beam.
How does laser tattoo removal work?
The primary method of laser tattoo removal delivers an extremely short pulse of laser energy, says Dr. Robert Anolik, board-certified dermatologist and professor at NYU School of Medicine. Popular mechanics. A patient’s natural skin tone, tattoo pigment, laser selected, and laser delivery method are all factors in how the process interacts with the ink.
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Laser energy from the commonly used Q-switched laser, or newer picosecond laser, heats tattoo pigments exponentially, Dr. Anolik says, sometimes reaching up to 300 degrees Celsius. “This leads to a bursting of the pigment particles and a release of tattoo pigment from the skin cells,” he explains.
Dr. Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University, says Popular mechanics that the laser light energy is transformed into heat in the targeted tattoo ink. This photo-acoustic reaction “literally explodes the pigment and makes it disappear,” she says.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons states that the normal human immune system generally removes small foreign particles from the skin, but the original tattoo ink particles are too large. the use of lasers breaks the particles into smaller pieces. Lasers can rapidly heat pigment-containing cells with short pulses to rupture them and send the fragments into the body for drainage.
Where is all this ink going? Some of the tattoo pigment is carried away by the body’s natural lymphatic system and some is released by post-treatment of the skin’s surface.
When is laser tattoo removal most effective?
Dr. Anolik says targeting darker pigments — think black and blue — on lighter skin tones offers the best chance of complete tattoo removal. “Other factors that make tattoo removal easier are when the tattoos are older and if they are done by amateurs rather than professional tattoo parlors,” he says. “They’re also most effective when the location providing the service has all of the laser options possible, as certain lasers and laser wavelengths are better suited to different skin tones and tattoo pigments.”
Older tattoos are easier to remove because the body has already broken down some of the ink. Many, but not all, laser systems can remove additional colors such as red, yellow, orange and green, says Dr. Alster, by varying the wavelengths of the laser.
Cosmetic tattoos, such as lip liner and microbladed eyebrows, are difficult to remove with lasers due to the presence of iron oxide or titanium dioxide, Dr. Alster says. These inks often darken with laser use due to a chemical reaction. In these cases, microneedles or a carbon dioxide laser are the best approach.
How painful is laser tattoo removal?
The terms “uncomfortable” or “discomfort” tend to get mixed up when talking about laser tattoo removal. Dr Anolik says the treatment is most effective and least painful when the patient is comfortable, which is why patients often have lidocaine injected into the skin to make the treatment “smooth and thorough”.
Some people say the discomfort is reminiscent of getting a tattoo in the first place. The process has also been described as having a heavy rubber band slammed against the skin repeatedly. Fun.
What to expect before and after laser tattoo removal
With the tattoo ink deposited below the top layer of skin, a dermatologist will figure out the best removal options. A consultation will not only help you understand what is involved, but can also help the dermatologist determine the tools and equipment they will need. Currently, they can even test lasers on your skin.
During a date, the skin is often numbed in some way. Then the pulsed laser goes to work, sometimes using various lasers at different wavelengths to break up the multiple colors of pigment. In addition, you will need to wear goggles.
Following treatment, the skin may show swelling, blistering or bleeding. The area may even be an open wound and will need to be treated as such. And expect to return. It often takes several visits – the larger the tattoo, the more treatment needed – to completely remove a tattoo, if complete removal is even possible.
The tattoo was originally created by layering ink, so plan for removal to also require removing the ink layer by layer, allowing time between treatments for the body to remove broken particles. Many tattoos require five to ten treatments, usually spaced six to eight weeks apart.
Because the ink has penetrated too deeply into the skin or the color of the dye does not react well to lasers, some tattoos cannot be completely removed.
What advances have there been in laser tattoo removal?
The science of laser tattoo removal has advanced beyond different wavelengths to target multiple colors, says Dr. Anolik. Already, dermatologists are beginning to use picosecond lasers to deliver laser energy in a shorter pulse duration; typical Q-switched lasers deliver energy in a nanosecond, but the picosecond option can create finer pigment particles.
Integrating fractional resurfacing lasers can sometimes release pigment from the surface of the skin. And the addition of acoustic wave therapies can act as an adjunct to laser therapy with sound waves helping to lead to “intense vibration of tattoo pigment and greater breakdown and release of pigment during a tattoo session. laser tattoo removal,” says Dr. Anolik.
Dermatologists now use perfluorodecalin (PFD) topical solution in certain situations, which helps remove some of the water vapor that develops immediately after laser treatment. “Once this gas is reduced by the locally placed PFD,” says Dr. Anolik, “we can withdraw on the same visit, possibly removing more pigment in one visit.”
Is laser tattoo removal safe?
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) believes in the safety of laser tattoo removal. “Most people can safely get laser tattoo removal,” the association writes on an FAQ page, with a few exceptions. The AAD notes that lasers have largely replaced other tattoo removal methods thanks to the efficiency of removing ink with fewer treatments and the ability to handle ink colors that were once difficult to remove.
Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. It covers stadiums, sneakers, equipment, infrastructure, etc. for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews include interviews with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and Tinker Hatfield in Portland.