How Hard (and Painful) Is It to Get a Tattoo Removed?

How Hard (and Painful) Is It to Get a Tattoo Removed?
Photo: Andrewshots, Shutterstock

There are a lot of reasons you might want a tattoo removed. Maybe it was done poorly, maybe you no longer care for whatever it was commemorating, or maybe you just want to clear some space to add fresh ink. Whatever your reason, the desire to get rid of a tat can come on just as strongly as the original desire to go under the needle — but there are a few things you need to know as you start the process.

Look for the right removal specialist

When you’re searching for someone to remove your tattoo, be choosy in the same way you probably were when you first got it. Rob Harris, founder of Disappearing inc., said you should look for a specialty shop in your area, even though dermatology offices and medspas may offer the service. He pointed out that laser specialists who exclusively work on tattoo removal will have more knowledge and experience than doctors or technicians who perform a variety of very different laser- and beauty-related services.

He also suggested finding a place that has a hefty number of before-and-after shots for you to look at on their website. Often, when you get a tattoo, you check out the artist’s previous work, right? Do the same thing here.

Go in for a consultation once you’ve found a few removal specialists you like. Many times, these consultations will be free. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the remover you pick, so it’s important that you know you’re comfortable with them and they help you lay out a plan. Ask questions while you’re there, including whether you can see more before-and-after photos of removed tattoos that had similarities to the one(s) you’re trying to get rid of. Ask about pricing, too.

Finally, ask what steps they take to mitigate pain. This is not a painless process by any means — you’re zapping your skin with a laser. Harris said Disappearing inc. uses a cooling machine and numbing before the lasering begins, for instance, to make it less painful.

Understand that this takes time and money, and every tattoo is different

Harris noted that the process of tattoo removal can take anywhere from nine months to two years. The lasers involved break up the skin into smaller particles, he said, and the body flushes those particles out over time. You’ll be going in for appointments every few months as this process plays out over and over.

Some tattoos make their exit with less hassle than others. For instance, if you have a stick-and-poke tattoo or one that wasn’t done by a professional, Harris said, it will probably not take as many sessions or as much time to get rid of. Professionally-done tattoos, especially those done with a tattoo gun, will take more time.

Other factors that can impact the effort required to oust your tattoo are these:

  • The age of the tattoo
  • The colours used in the tattoo
  • The pigmentation of your skin

Harris pointed out that yellow, for instance, is harder to remove than some other colours, but the difficulty depends on a combination of things: “It’s not just the ink. I can get yellow out on someone who has very fair skin because we don’t have to worry about the laser affecting the pigment of their skin, whereas if you have yellow and your skin is much darker, the laser doesn’t care whether it takes out the pigment of your skin with the pigment of your tattoo. In some cases, it will do both.” All that being said, he added, his team removes yellow tattoos with no issues “all the time,” so it can be done. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter a situation where you simply can’t get a tattoo removed; the real questions are how much time and money you’re willing to commit to the process.

And that’s why it’s important to go to a specialist who knows what they’re doing and can schedule your appointments at an interval that will have the best outcome for you and your skin. The good news, according to Harris, is that when removal is done right, the skin will look like it did pre-tattoo “in the large majority of cases.” It just won’t happen overnight.

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