For some, tattoos aren’t always for forever--and when it comes to erasing these once cherished symbols and signs removal may be tricky. Why? “At our office, we use lasers for removal,” explains Melanie Kingsley, MD, dermatologist at Indiana University Health. “Lasers remove tattoos by breaking up the pigment colors with a high-intensity light beam. But even with that kind of equipment, some tattoos are more stubborn to erase than others.”
What kind of factors can affect the removal process? “The more colors that a tattoo contains, for instance, generally the more treatments will be needed for complete removal,” she says.
Surprisingly, the age of a tattoo isn’t often a factor. “Tattoos do need to be at least six months old to be removed, because the inflammatory response has to stop, or removal treatment may make it worse. But, beyond this timeline it doesn’t matter if the tattoo is younger or older, it can be treated,” explains Dr. Kingsley. “That said, we’ve found that lighter tattoos tend to respond better to treatment than darker ones.”
How many treatments does it typically take for complete removal? “Typically 6 to 12,” explains Dr. Kingsley.
Tattoo removal process begins with the clinician applying skin-numbing lidocaine to the affected area. “Then, we complete the first laser treatment,” she says. Following the laser application, the clinician places a waterproof bandage over the affected area. This protective top stays on for up to 3 weeks. “Patients can shower with it on and resume all normal activities. They don’t have to worry about wound care,” explains Dr. Kingsley.
What’s next? “We wait six weeks, to allow the skin enough time to fully recover, and then go through the laser removal process again.”
Have a tattoo you’d like to remove but wondering where to start? “First, schedule a consultation with a trained professional who can evaluate your tattoo and advise you on the process,” suggests Dr. Kingsley. “The number of treatments you will need will ultimately depend on the age, size, and colors of your tattoo. The color of your skin, as well as how deep the tattoo pigment goes, may also affect the removal technique. To ensure you get proper treatment and care, it’s also best to find a reputable dermatologist or cosmetic surgery center in your area that has experience in tattoo removal.”
One downside: Since this procedure is a personal option in most cases, most insurance carriers won’t cover the process unless it is medically necessary. A small to medium-size tattoo can cost anywhere from $1,300 to $5,000 to erase and require between three and 12 visits—all parceled out over many months.
-- By Sarah Burns