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The science behind laser tattoo removal: how long it takes and side effects


Rethinking the ink? Laser treatment could be the answer (Picture: Shutterstock / GingerKitten)

Judging by this year’s showbiz shenanigans, 2021 is the year of tattoo regret.

A whole host of celebs have gone public with their inky mistakes – Strictly star Gemma Atkinson ‘thanked the Lord’ for the removal of three Chinese symbols that materialised down the right-hand side of her stomach in Magaluf at 3am.

Rita Ora has shared her wish to remove half of her 30 tattoos now that she’s turned 30 herself.

The butterfly tattoos on Ariane Grande’s arm seemed to have flown away permanently.

So what if you’re one of the 18,000 people who have searched for the term ‘tattoo removal’ online this month?

Clearly you’re not alone. Since clinics have started reopening, many are reporting seeing an increase in enquiries from people who started the process of getting tattoos before lockdown and had to put it on hold, subsequently losing interest in their design before it was finished.

‘Another reason is due to the time we’ve all spent at home,’ says Pulse Light Clinic’s senior consultant Barbara Taylor. ‘Clients are finding their tattoos no longer resonate with them. This means we are seeing an increase in demand to remove quotes, names, emotional stories and large pieces that are no longer part of the client’s taste.’

But is it actually as easy as all that?

How laser tattoo removal works

The only safe and effective way to remove a tattoo is through the use of laser technology.

The light from the laser passes over the tattoo and is absorbed by the pigment in the cells. This light is converted into heat and causes the cells – and pigment – to shatter.

Lasers can remove the pigment from your cells (Picture: Shutterstock / Vershinin89)

This shattering effect releases the ink from the macrophages in very small particles, which are once again recognised as a foreign body by the immune system. However, this time the shattered particles are small enough for the macrophages to carry away and destroy, eventually releasing them as waste through our lymphatic system.

Over time, laser tattoo removal destroys all pigment held in the cells, causing the tattoo to fade until it disappears.

Different types of lasers

Tattoo removal clinics typically use one of two types of laser – the Q-Switch and the picosecond.

The two work in the same way but offer different speeds and wavelengths of light delivery. Q-Switch lasers are older forms of the technology and deliver energy with a slower pulse, measured in nanoseconds.

Picosecond lasers are newer and deliver energy in picoseconds, or a trillionth of a second. This faster speed and higher energy means picosecond lasers tend to remove tattoos with fewer sessions.

There’s also a third type of laser, known as the LightSense laser, patented to NAAMA.

This was developed by Princeton University physicists and dermatologists, and it uses 100 times faster pulse speeds, smaller laser dots and less energy than conventional systems.

How long does tattoo removal take?

‘Getting a tattoo is a relatively speedy process but removing one takes time,’ says Taylor. ‘This will normally consist of seeing a tattoo practitioner every eight weeks for up to eight treatments. This can take up to 18 months. Sometimes it can take longer depending on the result the client wants.’

Clinics charge per session and the NHS puts the average cost of these sessions at around £50. This can rise up to £1,000 and beyond to remove a big tattoo.

‘Everything from colour, depth of pigmentation, placement, size and even skill of your tattooist will impact your treatment plan,’ says Dr Daron Seukeran, group medical director at Sk:n.

‘Typically, blue and black tattoos are easier to treat [because darker colours absorb more light from the laser] and we can see results in as little as four treatments for a small, dark tattoo. However, tattoos with a lot of pigment including red, yellow, green and aquamarine can easily take 12 treatments or more.’

NAAMA, however, claims its laser is so efficient that it can cut the time between visits down from eight weeks to just two or three.



Common tattoo myths busted

Myth 1: Tattoos can be removed with lemon juice

While it’s possible to marginally fade the appearance of a tattoo by applying a mixture of lemon juice and salt to it, the tattoo itself will remain in the dermis and thus will always be there.

Myth 2: Black ink is impossible to remove

There’s an underlying myth that the darker the tattoo, the harder it is to remove. In fact, the opposite is true. Blacks and dark colours absorb the laser light more effectively and therefore typically respond best to tattoo removal technologies.

Myth 3: Tattoo ink stays in your blood after removal

When the macrophages destroy the ink particles, they are treated as waste within the lymphatic system and discarded through either sweat, urine or faeces.

Speaking of damage…

If carried out by a professional, tattoo removal should leave minimal – if any – scarring on the skin. However, it’s not without risks or side effects.

‘Any laser treatment can have a risk of blistering, crusting or bruising, which can lead to residual scarring,’ continues Dr Seukeran. ‘Superficial blisters immediately following a procedure are quite normal, which is why aftercare is important for the healing process.’

Such aftercare includes wearing bandages for as long as possible to reduce friction, and treating the area with Vaseline. Even then, recovery time can vary.
‘Three things impact tattoo removal – the treatment, the tattoo and the client’s health and lifestyle,’ says NAAMA’s CEO Briony Garbett.

‘Given that the body removes the broken-down ink pigment via the lymphatic system, a person’s general health, from hydration through to exercise, is the final piece of the removal puzzle.



You can also use laser treatment to remove…

Birthmarks

The light from the laser is absorbed by the red colour of the blood vessels in the birthmark. The light produces heat, which destroys these blood vessels and causes the birthmark to fade over time.

Stretch marks and scars

Laser stretch mark and scar removal works by sending short pulses of energy into the scar tissue. This energy breaks down the tissue while stimulating your cells to produce collagen. This helps to smooth the appearance of the skin.

Moles

Bursts of laser light are passed through the mole to break down the pigment, making them fade.

If they protrude from the skin, laser treatments are used in conjunction with excisions. Lasers can also be used to reduce or remove freckles.

Veins

When the light from a laser is passed on to, or through, a vein and is converted into heat, it damages the vein, causing scar tissue. This seals the vein off. Without a source of blood, this closed vein dies and disappears.


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