Laser Tattoo Removal

Tuesday, 20 January 2009 | Tags: , , ,

Over the past 20 years, tattoos have evolved from rite-of-passage markings for pirates and bad boys, to colourful mainstream body décor, and even works of art. What hasn't changed, however, is their permanence. In fact, they're more permanent than ever before. Removing a tattoo can cost you up to four times as much as the tattoo itself, and take up to two years or longer to achieve a clean slate. Makes you think twice about getting one, doesn't it?

The Basics

Most people want to have a tattoo removed because:

  • They were too young when they got it
  • They don’t like feeling marked for life
  • They don’t like the actual tattoo anymore
  • The tattoo has faded

According to dermatologists and laser removal technology manufacturers, tattoo removal is a very strong growth industry lately! This can be traced to a boom of people getting tattoos in the 1990s and 2000s.

How it Works

  • The tattoo’s pigment is targeted by a laser calibrated to a specific wavelength of colour. The laser sends a pulse of energy into the skin, which breaks up the pigment. The pieces are then processed “out” through the skin’s lymphatic system, or rise to the surface of the skin and form scabs, which exfoliate a few days later.

  • Black is easiest to remove using this method since it readily absorbs the laser’s energy pulse. Blue and red are the next easiest. Greens, yellow and white are considered the most difficult. Similarly, pastels are usually mixed with a lot of white, which reflects the laser energy instead of allowing it to break up the pigment.

  • If you have an older tattoo (e.g. 1990s or earlier), it will be easier to remove than a more recent tattoo, since newer ink technology has made tattoos even more permanent.

  • If your tattoo is lightly shaded or has thin lines, it may also be easier to remove. Dark and deeply-inked tattoos will take a lot longer.

  • Pale-skinned people respond best to laser treatment since the energy targets pigment. Darker-skinned people risk hyper pigmentation (darkened skin at the removal area) or hypo-pigmentation (lightened skin).

What to Expect

  • Pain-wise, the effect of the laser energy pulses is described as similar to bee stings or rubber band snaps.

  • Expect a bit more discomfort if your tattoo is located in a high sensitivity area like along your spine, in the small of your back, on your hands, feet, ankles, or inner arms.

  • Extremities (hands/feet) can require more sessions because their reduced blood flow means there are fewer white blood cells (part of your lymphatic system) working to help remove the bits of laser-smashed pigment.

  • The overall experience each session goes something like this:

    • Before your session, you will be asked to apply a topical numbing cream (about 1-2 hours before) at home, and then protect the area with plastic kitchen wrap.

    • At the clinic, more numbing is applied with a “Zimmer” machine in tandem with the laser that blasts freezing cold air on to the target area.

    • After you and the doctor are both wearing protective eyewear, the pen-like laser is pointed directly onto the pigmented skin area and pulses light/energy about 10 times per second. If it’s your first time, the doctor will do a single pulse to make sure you’re ok before proceeding.

    • Immediately after treatment, skin appears cloudy and whitish as the pigment disperses. After an hour or so, the skin will look normal again and your tattoo will be noticeably lighter.

    • After each session, you must keep the area clean and dry, and protect with SPF 30 throughout the treatment. If scabbing occurs, use an antibacterial ointment and protective gauze. If inflammation occurs, try a cold compress or an anti-inflammatory pill like Tylenol.


  • A small black tattoo (e.g. about 2” x 2”) takes about 6 sessions over 8 months (with 6 weeks between sessions). Larger tattoos can take up to 12 sessions or more (with 10 weeks between sessions), depending on the number of colours and the size. That’s up to 2 years or more!

  • Each session can take anywhere from a few minutes to up to 30 minutes.

  • Average costs we came across were between $30-50 per square inch per session. For example, a smallish, black tattoo (e.g. about 2” x 2”) removed over 6 sessions ($200 per session) costs upwards of $1000 to remove.

  • There is also usually a consultation fee, which gets wrapped into the session fee if you decide to go ahead with it.

Other Considerations

  • When looking for a tattoo removal specialist, ask how many years the dermatologist has been doing tattoo removal. (The more experience, the better.) Also ask if the clinic owns or rents the laser equipment. If they own it, they will likely take better care of it than if they rent it.

Be Aware

  • White ink is the riskiest to remove because it may turn grey, which then makes it impossible to remove.

  • If you have dark skin, you risk hyper-pigmentation (the skin of the tattoo area permanently darkens) or hypo-pigmentation (the skin of the tattoo area permanently lightens).

  • Side effects may include swelling, blistering, scabbing, redness, and possibly bleeding

  • Don’t pick scabs: scarring and infection can result.


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