I’ve had tattoos since the age of 15. Over the years I’ve managed to collect quite a few: one of my rib cage, one on my back, a small hip piece, one on my calf, a 3/4 length sleeve, and a bicep piece on the other arm. Some people would say I’m moderately heavily tattooed; nothing too extreme. I’ve always been told how “I’m going to regret those later” along with all of the other ominous warnings, but never really had any tattoos I regret. In fact, I don’t think I could imagine my life without having the tattoos I have. However, with that being said, I did happen to recently find myself in a situation where I had some work done and wished I kept things the way they were. This is my personal experience, presented in a photo-documentary, of laser tattoo removal.
It all started with my 3/4 sleeve. I’m into traditional style tattoos and had managed to build a decent array of tattoos on my left arm. They were arranged in a patchwork style, with no tattoos touching or having any relation to the other. Although I was pleased with the arm I felt that it would be cool to have it tied together with some kind of background work, albeit shadows, stars, etc. I poured over tattoo magazines and books, and consulted with a few of my favorite tattoo artists but was unable to find exactly what I was looking for.
Fast forward to December. I managed to land a tattoo appointment in Las Vegas with my absolute favorite tattoo artist. Needless to say, I was beyond excited. I also figured that he would be a great resource to try to figure something out for the background. After getting my main piece done by him, we decided on some light fog to background the sleeve. After we were done and I looked it over I started right away to have second thoughts. The fog seemed to make the arm too busy, and the tattoos lost some of their visual power by being connected into a larger design. I figured I would let it heal up and reevaluate it later.
I also want to say in no way was this a reflection on the tattoo artist or the quality of his work. It’s an unfortunate fact that some tattoos can’t be fully realized until they are actually tattooed, and this was one of those situations.
After letting it heal and sit on my body for a while I came to the conclusion that I didn’t like the effect it had on the other tattoos. So I found myself in a situation no one with tattoos wants to be in: I regretted a tattoo. I’m of the school that instead of spending years being unhappy with it, I should take action, belly up, and get it removed.
So what are the options to get a tattoo removed? A quick search on Google will bring up thousands of results with many different products. Tat-B-Gone, Salabrasion, Tankbusters, Lasers. Which one works and which one is safe? Can a tattoo be fully removed? Does it leave scars? How expensive is it? How long does it take? Will it hurt? These were only some of the questions that were flying through my mind. So I did my homework and found out as much as I could about all of these different options. Now I present my knowledge and experience to you in the hopes that this will help someone who is at this junction with a tattoo.
The first and most important thing I found out is to DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Don’t be fooled into any quick fixes or wild claims. 99% of the things you find on the internet or in your area are probably unsafe and don’t work. Tattoo removal is a long process and can leave scars if done improperly. Before you make any decision it’s important you research your options over and over. Ask to see examples, ask to speak with a client. Don’t ever make uninformed, quick decisions (after all, maybe this is how you got the tattoo you now want to be removed). The damage can be permanent and end up much worse than a bad tattoo…I’m talking skin graft type stuff here people.
My next suggestion is to forget all of the creams, rubs, ointments, etc. Tat-B-Gone or any of the other similar products are bunk and can end up damaging the skin. They rely on an age-old treatment called Salabrasion, which is where abrasive materials such as salt rub off the top layer of skin. Don’t waste your time or epidermis. You’ll read stories of people on the internet who will say this worked or lightened their tattoos. I say good for them, but STAY AWAY!
So with that option out of the picture, what other options do we have? There’s excision where the tattoo is surgically cut out of the skin, cryosurgery where the skin is frozen and removed, dermabrasion where the top layers of skin are sanded off surgically, tissue expansion that uses a balloon inserted under the skin, and laser removal where a laser is directed at the ink molecules. Which to choose? That will depend on the size of your tattoo and personal choice. In my case, I decided to go with the option that leaves the least amount of scarring and is one of the most popular tattoo removal methods in use today: laser removal.
Before I go into my personal story with tattoo removal, I want to go over exactly what a tattoo is, how laser removal works, and all of the different types of laser treatments available. So let’s begin!
Different colors are treated with different wavelengths and strength. When getting my tattoo removed the technician demonstrated this by shooting some pulses in an area of skin where there was no tattoo. This didn’t have any effect. However, when she moved across an area with a tattoo, the skin snapped as the laser hit the ink and broke the molecules apart. Cool (and somewhat painful) stuff, huh?
Now on to the different types of lasers used for tattoo removal. The first lasers used for tattoo removal were the Argon and CO2 lasers. These lasers left heavy scarring as they not only destroyed the tattoo pigment but the upper layers of skin above as well. These lasers could not control the strength or depth of penetration of the laser. Furthermore, they couldn’t “see” different colors and instead are more like carpet bombing, annihilating all pigments in their path (including the natural pigments we want to keep).
The new generation of lasers is better able to control scarring because they have control over strength, penetration depth, pulse rate, and color interaction. Each performs a different function and have different strengths and weaknesses and are often used in conjunction for tattoo removal. Make sure to consult with your laser technician to find out what kinds of lasers they use and which ones would be best suited.
There is a final type of laser which should absolutely never be used for tattoo removal. These are hair removal lasers. Under no circumstances allow anyone to convince you that this would be a good idea. All it will do is turn the tattoo a dark-brownish color and possibly alter the chemical makeup of the tattoo pigment making it even harder to remove.
With all of these different laser choices, it’s obvious to do your homework, ask a ton of questions, and find an experienced laser removal specialist. Remember: this industry is, as of this publishing, still not regulated by the FDA, AMA or any other medical society, leaving it open to all sorts of shady individuals and companies. Think: the dieting industry is unregulated in the same way. We all can easily see how many ridiculous, wild, claims are made for weight loss products that simply don’t work or may even be dangerous.
Good questions to ask the tattoo removal technician or office are: How long has the laser technician been performing tattoo removal? What type of lasers do you have? Are the lasers rented or do you own them (watch out for rented lasers as these may be old and not as accurate due to being moved around)? Are you certified in any way? Do you belong to any dermatological societies or medical societies? Do you do tattoo removals here all of the time, or do you only set up shop on certain days? How old is the laser? How do you maintain the lasers, i.e. do you have any laser equipment technicians servicing them? Do you have any books with photos of your removals (watch out for digital pictures as these can be enhanced)?
Whew! Still with me? With that out of the way, I’ll continue with my story.
Upon researching options for tattoo removal in Southern California, I decided upon a clinic called Tattoo Removal Laser Clinic (quite an imaginative name huh?) located in my hometown of San Diego. They seemed like the best choice out of all of the options my Google search netted me. So I made the appointment and went in. Immediately I was impressed. The procedures were explained to me in a slow manner, they showed me photos, gave me their longstanding history, and were able to give me a price quote for one removal session, $500. They even installed hardwood floors so the laser would roll around without damaging the optics! If you’re anywhere near the San Diego area or have the money to travel, I highly recommend this clinic. I can’t say how much I was pleased with the service I received there. (Disclaimer: in no way have I received any payments, reduced treatment costs, publicity, or any other monetary or personal gain from TRLaser; nor am I in any way associated or in partnership with the laser).
On the day of the treatment, I got up early and shaved my arm so the laser wouldn’t hit the hairs and burn them (which can create an unpleasant smell and possibly interfere with the laser). I then headed over to the clinic where they applied a topical lidocaine based gel (to numb the skin a bit) and wrapped my arm in plastic wrap so it could soak up the gel over the next 3 hours. Coming back after my arm was nice and numb, I was finally ready to see what this laser removal business was all about. I can’t say I didn’t feel a little nervous though. We unwrapped the arm, donned our protective goggles and got to work after a quick reassuring talk from the technician.
The feeling of the laser was somewhat interesting, and at times painful. When the laser would hit the ink you could feel a pop or snap under the skin that felt like a rubber band or small spatters of hot cooking oil. As the technician moved the laser over the skin I noticed that areas with more concentrations of ink were more painful. Makes sense right! At no point was it unbearable, although I can see how it could get quite painful depending on your pain threshold, the location of the tattoo, and the amount of ink in the tattoo. I definitely winced a few times. Overall though I thought it was amazing to watch the laser go over the ink and pop and snap my skin into slightly raised areas. Many areas of the tattoo I could see an immediate difference like the ink had been erased. Other areas it was hard to tell due to the irritation of the skin. Remember, with lasers the true effects of removal happen over the next 2 months as your body cleans away the ink particles. Sometimes you may not notice an immediate difference.
The whole procedure only took about 30 minutes. There weren’t any blisters on the arm immediately following treatment. The only noticeable effect was skin irritation similar to a sunburn. After getting my arm cleaned up a bit, we wrapped it in gauze to protect it and I went to go take a well-deserved nap.
And that was it! I had survived a laser treatment! I had to say there was a strange sort of pride in going through the procedure and being one of few to have an actual personal record of the event. Over the next few months, I watched as the tattoo shading faded. It was amazing! I was so happy to have my arm back! And the other tattoos hadn’t suffered any real damage from the removal process. I may have to get some lines redrawn where the laser had taken out a small piece. Today you can barely tell I ever had any tattoo at all. There are only a few small, faded, pockets of ink that I expect will fade more over time. If not, I’ll go back in for another touch-up treatment. The surface of the skin is perfect and there is no noticeable difference between the skin that underwent the laser treatment and untattooed skin.
In my case, since the tattoo, I got removed was only light gray shading, I was able to have most of it removed it one session. However, I don’t think this would be considered normal. Most tattoos take multiple sessions.
And so that wraps up my story. Hopefully, this will help someone in their decision the get a tattoo removed.
And, as always, feel free to email me with any questions. Thanks for reading!