Tattoo removal methods have existed just as long as the actual tattooing process itself. In the past, most attempts to remove tattoos have had less than desirable results. The use of skin grafting, plastic surgery, dermabrasion, and CO2 lasers, are painful, expensive, and have left behind scars in place of the tattoo.
In the mid 80’s, new laser technology was introduced to remove tattoos, which provided a removal process without scarring the underlying skin. In order to remove a tattoo completely without a scar, a Q-Switched laser must be used. The term Q-Switched indicates that the laser is pulsed so quickly (billionths of a second) that it is able to dissolve the ink without destroying the live tissue in the process. Similar to running your hand over a candle very quickly, there’s not enough time to burn the skin. The Q-Switched laser has become the preferred method of tattoo removal, because they produce superior results while minimizing pain and reducing the chance of scarring.
At our office, we are pleased to offer laser tattoo removal treatments utilizing the Sandstone Medical Ultralight II Laser System. This laser works by delivering very high power but very short pulses of laser light, which pass through the skin and break up the particles of tattoo pigment, which are then removed by the body’s white blood cells. Each laser pulse feels like the snap of a rubber band against the skin, but most patients say that the laser treatments are less uncomfortable than having the tattoo put on. It is important to remember that the body tries to remove even untreated tattoos; that’s why tattoos fade over time. The Q-Switched laser treatments shatter the pigment into tiny particles small enough to be removed much more quickly.
The Sandstone Ultralight II Laser System is ideal for the treatment of all types of tattoos. This laser works well on professionally applied tattoos as well as amateur or “street tattoos”. The tattoo must be at least 6 months old for the treatments to be effective, and they work best on non-tanned skin.
The number of treatments required to remove a tattoo will vary. There are many variables that come into play, such as the type of ink used, how deep the ink was injected, and is the tattoo an amateur or a professional one. Removing a professionally applied tattoo is usually a fading process that requires a series of treatments spaced approximately 6-8 weeks apart. Professional tattoos usually require 6-12 treatments for complete (95%) clearing, but may require as many as 20. The black colored inks usually respond quicker than the bright colored inks because they absorb the light better. The depth, color and amount of ink, as well as the location of the tattoo on your body are all determining factors in how long and how many treatments are required. Tattoos on the extremities are more difficult to remove than those on the trunk. Most amateur or “street tattoos”, which are usually composed of carbon compounds like pencil lead, ashes, or India ink, are usually removed in only 4-6 treatments scheduled 4-6 weeks apart.
With each treatment session, topical or local anesthesia is applied to the area of the tattoo. Protective eyewear is the put on, and the laser is then used to treat the tattoo. Initially, there is a whitish discoloration over the treated areas, but this fades in a few minutes. The tattoo then looks the same as it did prior to treatment. After the treatment is complete, a topical ointment and dressing is applied. There may be some pinpoint areas of bleeding, which is caused by the ink near the surface of the skin reacting to the laser light and “popping” the skin. The site may turn red over the next few hours, and may even blister. Some ink may drain out in the blister fluid. Over the course of the next few weeks, the white blood cells in the body take up the smaller particles of the ink and remove it from the skin, causing the tattoo to fade.
The level of discomfort is different for every person and also varies by the location of the tattoo, the amount, the color, and the depth of the ink. The laser pulse is described as being similar to being “snapped” with a rubber band. Some areas are more sensitive than others, such as the ankle and shoulder blade. A topical anesthetic is applied to the skin prior to treatments, but sometimes a local anesthesia is required. The laser treatments are more uncomfortable on the first session, and with darker colors, but gets less severe with each subsequent treatment because there is less pigment to absorb the laser energy. Many people equate the discomfort of tattoo removal to the discomfort of getting the tattoo.
There is normally redness like a mild sunburn and mild swelling following a treatment. This will usually subside in 1-2 hours, but may persist for 1-2 days. Pain medication may be prescribed for you following the procedure. Blistering may occur, and there may be ink in the blister fluid. There may be some pinpoint areas of bleeding as well. You should keep the area clean and apply a topical antibiotic ointment, such as polysporin or Neosporin, and keep it covered with a clean dressing for a few days.
The probability of discomfort, blistering, and some bleeding has been discussed above. Also, although true scarring does not occur with Q-switched laser treatments of tattoos, occasionally mild changes in skin texture may occur. The laser light is absorbed by skin pigment as well as tattoo ink, so darker skinned patients may notice some lightening (depigmentation) of the skin, which usually returns to normal within a few months. Lighter skinned patients who are tanned should wait until the tan fades before treatment. There have also been cases of skin becoming darker, or hyperpigmented, with laser treatments.