Laser Tattoo Removal – Cost, Risks & Side Effects

Reviewed by Jason Lupton, MD

Laser tattoo removal is a growing trend among people who had "ink" done in their youth, but now view it as outdated or as detrimental to their career. Others may be dissatisfied with a tattoo that was poorly done.

There is also a trend among former gang members to have gang-related tattoos removed, and some areas have free removal services for such cases.

Whatever your reason may be for removing a tattoo, laser procedures are the most common and effective method for erasing the ink. Previous methods of tattoo removal included dermabrasion ("sanding" the area) and excision (cutting inked skin out of the area and possibly grafting skin into the area). While these methods may still be used occasionally, the use of laser pulses has become the standard method.

You may have seen creams marketed to remove tattoos; some are being investigated for effectiveness, but there isn't much evidence for them yet.

Before Treatment

Before laser tattoo removal, your skin will be evaluated as to condition and color in relation to ink color to determine the best type of laser light delivery. Also you'll be given protective eyewear to shield your eyes from the laser light. Your doctor may recommend oral pain medication such as Tylenol and a topical anesthetic cream an hour or two before treatment. Some patients receive an injected local anesthetic.

The Laser Tattoo Removal Procedure

The laser device fragments the ink with short pulses of intense, concentrated laser light. The method of delivery and the wavelengths used are designed to target only the tattooed pigments, without affecting the surrounding pigments and layers of skin. Different laser lights are used for different ink colors. Black ink is easiest to remove, because black absorbs the full spectrum of light, while green, blue, red, and other colors require more targeted laser pulses.

Passing through the surface layers of your skin, the light is absorbed by the tattooed pigments, causing them to break into smaller particles. Your body's immune system then removes the fragmented tattooed particles. And because your immune system works best in areas of greater blood circulation, ink can be removed faster in those areas. Thus, it's more difficult to remove tattoos in the hands and feet, where there is less circulation.

Tattoo removal may require anywhere from one to ten laser treatment sessions, each treatment lasting only a few minutes, with four- to eight-week intervals between each session. Each treatment penetrates a little deeper, removing more ink and leaving the tattoo progressively lighter.

laser tattoo removal

After Treatment

After the procedure, you'll be given anti-bacterial ointment and bandaging on the treated area. Your doctor may instruct you to keep the treated area elevated to avoid swelling, and to avoid the sun, as your skin will be extra sensitive to sun damage. You may feel a slight sunburn sensation for a couple of days and have redness for a few weeks.

Best Candidates for Laser Tattoo Removal

The best candidates are people with a fair to medium-light complexion who have darker ink tattoos applied sparsely and close to the skin surface. The laser light seeks contrast to target the appropriate pigments, so the greater the contrast (dark ink on light skin), the more effective the removal process and the fewer sessions needed.

Also, darker ink happens to be more easily fragmented, as is less dense ink that is closer to the surface. However, laser treatments may also be effective on people with darker skin and with varied ink colors.

Tattoo removal

Tattoo Removal Side Effects

Side effects of laser tattoo removal are rare, but may include blistering, infection, loss of skin color, or scabbing. If scabbing occurs, it usually subsides within two weeks. In most cases, skin returns back to normal.

With advances in laser technology and better methods, scarring has become rare.

Cost of Laser Tattoo Removal

Laser tattoo removal cost typically ranges between $250 and $850. If the out-of-pocket cost is too much for you, ask your doctor about payment plan options. For financing options and tips, continue reading about patient financing. Visit other pages in Consumer Guide to Plastic Surgery, or its sister sites, to review information about the cost of other enhancement procedures, such as the cost of liposuction surgery, or to find out how much braces cost. Also, learn about other types of laser procedures, including Laser Lipo, as well as the correction of other body modifications, such as earlobe repair surgery for earlobes that have been stretched via gauging.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time...
Your tattoo, that is.

A report in the July 2008 issue of Archives of Dermatology found that women are more likely to seek tattoo removal than men and may be motivated by the social stigma associated with tattoos and negative comments made by others.

Researchers at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center conducted a survey of 66 men and 130 women who visited one of four dermatology clinics for tattoo removal in 2006. Survey respondents had an average age of 30 and answered 127 questions. Their answers were compared with responses to a similar survey conducted in 1996.

In 2006, participants reported they had gotten a tattoo to feel unique or independent or to make certain life experiences stand out. In contrast, the main reasons for seeking tattoo removal included just deciding to remove it, embarrassment, lowering of body image, getting a new job or career, problems with clothes, being stigmatized or marking an occasion, such as a birthday, marriage or newly found independence.

The 2006 survey also found that participants who had their tattoos removed were more likely to be women who were white, single, college-educated and between the ages of 24 and 39.

While the women were pleased with their tattoos when they got them, their feelings changed over the following one to five years. "While men also reported some of these same tattoo problems leading to removal, there seemed to be more societal fallout for women with tattoos, as the tattoos began to cause embarrassment, negative comments and clothes problems and no longer satisfied the need for uniqueness," the study authors write.

About the Reviewer of This Article

Dr. Lupton is board certified by the American Board of Dermatology. He is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. He completed his undergraduate and medical training at Georgetown University and currently practices in Del Mar, Calif.