Have Ink You Don't Like? Here's How Tattoo Removal Works

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We've always viewed the fact that tattoos are permanent as both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because a design that means a lot to you gets to stay on your body forever; but it's a curse because, for some people, forever can feel like a big commitment, and there's always the risk you'll regret it later on down the line. Whether it's an ex's name, a quote that no longer resonates, or a design that just brings up a bad memory, there are tons of people out there with permanent designs on their bodies that they've grown tired of. Luckily, laser tattoo removal is an option.

Thanks to modern technology, it's possible to have ink zapped from the surface of your skin, ridding you from the design forever. If that's something you're thinking about either now or in the future, there are a few things you should know about the process. You might be wondering how laser tattoo removal works, if it hurts, and what the cost is. We spoke to a dermatologist about what you need to know before getting a tattoo removed.

How Does Tattoo Removal Work?

The most effective way to remove a tattoo is via a targeted, in-office laser, during which, laser energy is directed at the pigment "for a matter of picoseconds" (a very small fraction of a second) to break down the ink. If you're completely unfamiliar with the process, you're probably wondering, "How does laser tattoo removal work?"

"The laser works to break up pigment particles as a sledgehammer would break up concrete to disrupt and break down the ink, allowing your body to absorb the smaller fragments and break it down naturally over time," Corey L. Hartman, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL, tells POPSUGAR. "Other than surgical excision, there is currently no other effective method to remove a tattoo."

There are a handful of laser tattoo removal devices on the market, but Dr. Hartman recommends using the PicoSure laser, adding that it's the most advanced treatment available for removing tattoos: "It has revolutionized the way that lasers are treated, significantly reduced the frequency of side effects, and expanded its use for even the darkest of skin tones," he says.

How Many Tattoo Removal Sessions Are Needed?

In short: removing a tattoo isn't a quick fix. Because the pigment has been etched onto multiple layers beneath the skin surface, it will take time and multiple sessions to completely break up the pigment. Patients are typically advised to book sessions every six to eight weeks, and on average, it can take between eight to 10 sessions before your desired final result is achieved, depending on how large or faded your tattoo is initially. (Larger tattoos, for example, might require more sessions than 10.)

Does Tattoo Removal Hurt?

Pain is subjective, and someone's tolerance to the tattoo removal process might vary from one person to the next. You might compare the sensation you get from the laser similarly to getting the actual tattoo, but, according to Dr. Hartman, each session throughout the process is fairly short — it should take no longer than 15 minutes, depending on how large your tattoo is.

If your pain tolerance is low, consider asking your dermatologist or technician to apply numbing cream 20 minutes before treatment.

What Risks Are Associated With Laser Tattoo Removal?

As with any cosmetic procedure, laser tattoo removal does come with a few risks: "Whenever laser energy is involved, there is a risk of loss of pigment, darkening of the skin, or a change in the texture of the skin," Dr. Hartman says. He notes, however, that textural changes are rare, "since the laser targets pigment, and pigment makes up the normal skin anatomy."

How Much Does Laser Tattoo Removal Cost?

Prices for tattoo removal largely depend on where you live, but in general, if you're looking to get a tattoo removed via laser treatment, you should know that it's not cheap. According to Dr. Hartman, the process can cost anywhere between $150 to $500 a session, depending on the size of the tattoo.

What Should I Do After Each Tattoo Removal Session?

After your tattoo removal session, the skin in the tattooed area might appear frosty, red, and cracked, and it may also feel sensitive. This is no reason to worry, as the sensation is only temporary and can be calmed with topical products. "This is easily treated with a healing ointment like Aquaphor Healing Ointment For Dry & Cracked Skin ($19) and resolves within days," Dr. Hartman says. "The tender sensation resolves within a couple of hours and the skin can be gently washed with a mild cleanser."

Laser Tattoo Removal Before and After

— Additional reporting by Renee Rodriguez