Tattoo removal: It's possible, but not easy

Wednesday, 11 October 2017, 05:35:58 PM. Depending on the tattoo, the artwork may only take a few hours, or in some cases minutes, to complete. However, the removal can take weeks or months and multiple sessions.

Editor’s note: Yesterday, we featured an article about talking to your teen about body piercings and tattoos. Today we’re following up with an article about tattoo removal.

Have you ever purchased a shirt, but then decided it wasn’t flattering on you, so you took it back? Seems like an easy process, right? Well, unfortunately the same cannot be said about tattoo removal. I always urge patients to think twice before getting a tattoo because having buyer’s remorse about body ink could end up being a very costly and time-intensive experience.

About 35 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 34 have at least one tattoo, and according to the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, laser tattoo removal was up 13 percent in 2016 over the previous year.

There are several options on the market for the lasers that are used to remove a tattoo. The current gold standard is using a q-switched laser which releases energy in one billionth of a second. In recent years, a variety of picosecond lasers have become commercially available. This has been the biggest breakthrough for laser technology in 20 years as the picoseconds release their energy in one trillionth of a second, breaking up the bonds of the tattoo ink into very fine particles. These particles are eventually cleared by the body.

Depending on the tattoo, the artwork may only take a few hours, or in some cases minutes, to complete. The removal can take weeks or months and multiple sessions. The picosecond lasers allow for less treatment sessions than the q-switch lasers, but several treatments are still needed and they must be spread six to eight weeks apart.

The wavelength of the laser light is preferentially absorbed by the color it is targeting, and therefore different wavelengths are used for different colors. Some colors are more challenging to treat than others, like tan, peach, purple, and turquoise. Black is the easiest ink color to clear.

It is also no secret that getting a tattoo is not the most pleasant feeling. Removal is no different. A topical numbing agent is often applied before the removal process begins to reduce the amount of pain a patient feels.

Patients should wait at least six months before engaging in the removal process. The skin needs time to heal from the initial inflammation of the tattoo placement. Treating a tattoo too soon can cause problems.

If you are thinking about inking, make sure you understand the permanence of your decision before you commit. If you are regretting a current tattoo, rejoice in knowing you have options for removal!

Nazanin Saedi, M.D. is Director of Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Surgery.

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