Overview of Tattoo Removal

There are as many reasons for getting a tattoo removed as there are for getting a tattoo in the first place. In addition to no longer liking a tattoo, common reasons for tattoo removal include the following:

  • tattoo is related to or associated with an ex partner
  • tattoo has faded or blurred
  • tattoo is poorly done

Tattoo removal must be tailored to the type of tattoo. When applying tattoos, artists use assorted inks and the sources of tattoo inks are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Amateur tattoos usually are closer to the surface of the skin and are more responsive to laser tattoo removal. Professional tattoos, which often are are deeper in the skin, usually require more laser treatments. Tattoos that have a variety of ink colors may be more difficult to remove and may require multiple laser wavelengths and possibly, more than one laser to treat.

Laser surgery is most common method used to remove tattoos. The preferred laser type is called a q-switched laser. These lasers, which safely pulse in the millionths of a second range, do not cause excess heat build up in the tissue, reducing scar formation. Laser tattoo removal requires multiple treatments and is considered to be the most effective and safest treatment.

Black tattoos (India ink) are typically the easiest to treat. Pastel colors, green, and sky blue tend to be more difficult to remove. In some cases, a tattoo cannot be completely removed using a laser, resulting in a "ghost" tattoo, with a faint outline remaining. Occasionally, a tattoo results in underlying skin scarring that becomes apparent when the colored portion is removed.

In most cases, the tattoo is treated every 6 weeks. The number of treatments required depends on the colors, location, and depth of the tattoo, as well as the patient's skin type. In patients who have darker skin, more conservative treatments are needed to prevent scarring.

Alternative methods for tattoo removal include dermabrasion ("sanding" the tattoo off the skin) and surgical excision, in which a scalpel is used to remove the tattoo and the wound is stitched. These methods are more likely to result in scarring.

There are risks involved with tattoo removal. Risks include scarring, infection, and skin discoloration. In some cases, it is impossible to remove the tattoo completely.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Christopher J. Dannaker, M.D.

Published: 26 Jul 2006

Last Modified: 10 Nov 2015