Tattoo Removal Techniques

Tattoos have been with us for thousands of years and are currently fashionable, but what do you do if you fall out of love with a tattoo you've had, or the subject of it? If you're living with tattoo regret, there are various options open for removal.

Surgical excision

A surgeon removes the skin holding the tattoo, and sutures together the surrounding skin if the tattoo was small, or carries out a skin graft from another part of your body if it's a mid-sized tattoo. This technique is a last resort for large tattoos as for anything other than a very small item, it is very likely to leave visible scarring.

Chemical peels

Also known as scarification, this is removing the skin above the tattoo with acid. New skin then grows to replace the damaged area. Again, this can lead to long-term skin damage and scarring, so is not commonly used any more.


This involves rubbing the skin away with surgical versions of sanding discs. It is often used as a treatment to smooth out acne scars, or the fine lines from aging. When used on tattoos, it works by removing the top and middle layers of the skin, then the tattoo is removed surgically and the skin sewn back together. Like excision, this means the area may be scarred. It is rarely used now that laser treatment is common.

Tattoo removal creams

There are various bleaching creams on the market which claim to fade a tattoo over 3-12 months of use. The advantage of the creams is they are a painless method that can be applied at home. The disadvantages are they can bleach the skin around the tattoo, and can cause allergic reactions.

Many people claim the creams do not work at all. The manufacturers point out that every person and every tattoo is unique, so the cream will work better for some people than others. The FDA has not approved any creams and have claimed they do no benefit, so think carefully before using them.

Laser removal

The most common tattoo removal technique now the equipment is widespread, it uses focussed laser light to encourage the decomposition of the ink of the tattoo, which is then cleared by the body's immune system.

Different inks respond to different wavelengths of laser light. The easiest to remove pigments are black, blue and brown, whereas yellow, red, green, orange and white are more difficult. Professionally applied tattoos are usually deeper in the skin and contain more colours, making them harder to remove and requiring more treatments.

On average, it takes 7-12 treatments to remove a tattoo, but it may take more depending on how your skin reacts, and on the particular tattoo. It is usual to have a break of 4-8 weeks between treatment sessions to allow the skin to respond and the body to clear some of the pigment. In rare cases people have an allergic reaction to the decomposing ink so if you're having a laser treatment, make sure you report any changes in how you feel to your doctor.

Although bloodless, the treatment is not pain free, and feels like being hit by a stretched elastic band or a mild burning, depending on your reaction. Most treatments will be done under a mild anaesthetic so they are not too painful, but the area will be sore and will need careful cleaning and covering for at least a week after each treatment.

Make sure lasers used are 'Q-switched', producing very short and very intense pulses of light, these are currently the best for targeting the pigment and causing the least damage to surrounding tissue. As the bursts are very short, it can take between 10 minutes and half an hour to treat the whole tattoo.

As it is the most successful and least painful procedure of the removal techniques, laser removal has become the most popular way to get rid of a tattoo.


An alternative to removing the tattoo is to camouflage it by overlaying another tattoo over the same area. Depending on the original tattoo, and the skill of the second tattooist, this can completely hide the original so no one will know it ever existed. Pamela Anderson had this done after getting divorced, changing 'Tommy' on her ring finger to 'Mommy' so she was not constantly reminded of her ex-husband.

The techniques for tattoo removal are advancing all the time, but none are quick or painless. It's best to be sure you want the tattoo and can live with it before getting permanently inked. If you're planning a tattoo, look at getting a temporary version first, either in henna or as a rub-on transfer, which can look just as good as the real thing and last for several days. A few days or weeks with a temporary version may just help you avoid making the mistake of getting a permanent design that you end up hating.

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