Laser Tattoo Removal

This is the most popular way of removing a tattoo. Laser tattoo removal involves breaking down the pigments (or inks) within a tattoo into tiny particles which are easily absorbed by the skin. They were first used back in the 1960s as a form of cutting implement (replacement for a scalpel) but their use has been expanded to include a variety of medical procedures such as removal of body hair, acne and other forms of skin damage and tattoo removal. You might think of laser tattoo removal as a recent development but it has, in fact, been carried out over the last twenty years.

How does the laser remove a tattoo?

Lasers are very good for the removal of professional tattoos: these are a type of tattoo in which the pigments have been injected into the deeper layer of skin the dermis, and become fixed into position by means of the surrounding collagen layers. These layers form a network, effectively locking in the tattoo which makes it very difficult to remove.

A laser is a device which emits an intense beam of light that transfers energy onto a designated source, e.g. the skin. This beam of light is then absorbed by certain pigments (colours) within the tattoo.

There is a certain type of laser for this procedure called a Q-switchedor quality switched laser. A Q-switched laser emits light in a particular way in short, sharp pulses, which break down the tattoo pigments. These are then absorbed by the feeding cells within the skin. This light energy is measured in nanometres (nm) and is emitted at frequencies of 532nm or 1064 nm.

Types of Q-switched laser

There are three types of laser for this purpose:

  • Nd: YAG
  • Alexandrite
  • Ruby

The Q-switch laser is proven to be the most effective way of removing a tattoo. Non Q-switched lasers and Intense Pulsed Light therapy (IPL) are also used but are not as effective at tattoo removal. Plus there is the risk of them damaging the skin around the tattoo. Not all lasers remove all the pigments in a tattoo and some work well on certain colours than others. The colours present in your tattoo will dictate the type of laser to be used. Amateur tattoos are generally easier to remove than professional tattoos.

Nd:YAG laser - This laser works best on red, blue and black pigments in tattoos but is not so effective on green and light blue pigments. It is very effective at removing an amateur tattoo.

Alexandrite - This type of laser works best on tattoos with blue, green and black pigments.

Ruby - The Ruby laser is most effective on tattoos with green, blue and black pigments. It is less effective on red, yellow and orange pigments. Duller pigments such as black, brown and blue are easier to remove whereas brighter ones such as red, orange, yellow, green and white are more difficult to eradicate. Please bear in mind that some pigments may not respond at all to the treatment whereas others may turn black or brown during the procedure.

Number of treatment sessions

A professional tattoo takes longer to remove and will require the application of at least two lasers. They will require several treatment sessions as many as 20 in some cases which will bump up the costs. Conversely, an amateur tattoo may require only a couple of treatment sessions.

What to be aware of

Some pigments within a tattoo can be semi-permanentand are often a blend of several colours, for example, earth tones, which means that they contain iron-oxide materials. The problem with this is that these pigments can turn black when exposed to a laser beam. In other words, it can make the tattoo look worse. It is a good idea if the practitioner carries out a test patch beforehand to see if the pigments in your tattoo are semi-permanent. Several test patches will be required. If your tattoo is blue or black only then treatment is likely to be successful but, if it contains other colours then you need to be made aware of the risks as well as the benefits. Laser tattoo removal does not work for everyone and a reputable clinic should discuss the worst case scenario with you. This then gives you the choice of deciding whether to go ahead or not with the treatment.

The laser tattoo removal process

This procedure will have been discussed beforehand by your practitioner or cosmetic surgeon. He or she will outline the risks as well as the benefits and will tell you what the likely outcome will be.

Avoid exposing your tattoo to the sun or using a sunbed four weeks prior to your treatment. He/she will also ask you about your medical history and will ask you to sign a consent form. This is a written statement to the effect that you understand what the procedure is and the benefits/risks involved. He/she may also take before and afterphotographs of the tattoo.

A test patch will be performed to see how well (or not) your tattoo responds to the laser. The results of this will determine the type of laser used and the outcome.

The main thing is to try and relax during the procedure. It is important to note that this isnt a painless procedure and you will experience some discomfort. However a topical anaesthetic in the form of a cream will be applied to your skin beforehand which will help to numb the area. You will also be given protective eye goggles to wear and possibly a small hand-held fan to cool down the treated area.The procedure can last from several minutes through to an hour although this depends upon the size and type of tattoo. Any heating of your skin will be kept to a minimum in order to reduce the incidence of scars forming but be prepared for some minimal scarring.

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