If you’re ready to get a tattoo removed, you’re not alone: According to a 2006 survey in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 24% of 18- to 50-year-olds have tattoos, and 17% have considered tattoo removal.
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to getting a tattoo removed. The bad news is that tattoos are meant to be permanent, and even state-of-the-art removal techniques won’t work for everyone; your chance of success varies with your skin color and the tattoo’s pigments and size.
The good news is that you don’t have to undergo your mother’s tattoo removal technique. The de-inking process has evolved in recent years, from a cringe-worthy, potentially skin-damaging process to a safer, more sophisticated method that uses laser technology.
Don’t try these at home
In decades past, people trying to get rid of tattoos have gone to extreme measures to de-ink. For example, one technique known as dermabrasion involves scraping away or sanding down the skin. In salabrasion, a salt solution is rubbed into the skin and heated and scraped away. In both cases, when the area heals, the tattoo may be gone, but scars are likely to be left behind.
Surgically removing the tattoo is also likely to leave a scar. The tattooed skin is cut out and the surrounding skin is sewn back together. Occasionally, doctors can perform surgical removals of tiny tattoos.
Scars are the most common side effect of tattoo removal. However, for some, the removal technique known as scarification is a form of body modification itself, just like tattooing and piercing. Much like a chemical peel removes the top layer of skin, an acid solution is used to remove the tattoo in this procedure. The scar that forms in its place covers up whatever ink remains.
Cryosurgery, sometimes called cryotherapy, has also been used to remove tattoos. This procedure freeze-burns the tattooed skin with liquid nitrogen, which is commonly used to treat warts and other skin lesions.
None of the above forms of destroying the tattooed skin are recommended, says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, the founder and director of 5th Avenue Dermatology Surgery and Laser Center, in New York City. “You could throw kerosene on it and light a matchthat’d be the same thing.”
The best way to remove a tattoo is with quality-switched, or Q-switched, lasers, which have become widely used in the last decade. The beam of light searches for contrast between skin tone and ink and pulses intensely on the skin to break the ink down into particles small enough for the body to absorb.
“Laser removal is the standard of care,” says Dr. Frank, but that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. “There is no great treatment.”