So you went ahead and did the thing you’re not supposed to do. You had a significant other’s name tattooed somewhere on your body and it lasted longer than the relationship; or maybe you recently learned that Tibetan symbol you thought meant warrior, in fact, means tired. Perhaps you just had a botched ink job that another artist couldn’t cover and make into something you were excited about. Regardless of the reason, removing a tattoo is now more common and the process has improved over the years, making those regrettable decisions a faint memory after a few sessions with a licensed technician. But before you begin the multi-step process of erasing the daily reminders of bad decisions, here is what you need to know about permanent tattoo removal and how much it can cost to remove a tattoo.
Well, it’s not cheap
The cost per session depends entirely on the size of your tattoo and, as is the case with getting the tattoo itself, varies based on location. According to Claudio Sorrentino, founder of Body Details, which has multiple locations in South Florida, the minimum cost will be $100 per session. He estimates the cost could go up to $500 a session in his studio. He says, “we want customers to have peace of mind and know that the price they pay is going to be the price to remove the tattoo without any additional costs. For this reason, we offer all inclusive packages that provide ongoing treatments until the tattoo is completely removed.” Dr. Nazanin Saedi, director of Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology at Thomas Jefferson University estimates that removing a larger tattoo could cost as much as $800.
And tattoo removal takes time
Dr. Erum Ilyas of Montgomery Dermatology bases his pricing on both size of tattoo and the color of the ink. He told us that a “tattoo the with an area around the size of the bottom of a can of soda that is mostly blues, blacks, and reds will cost about $300 per session and take somewhere between three and six sessions to remove.” Each of these sessions runs between 15 and 30 minutes, but they need to be spaced apart by at least six weeks. So, the entire process could take a year to remove a tattoo entirely. While Sorrentino notes sessions most sessions can be performed in less than 10 minutes at his studio and he sees clearance in as little as four sessions and up to eight sessions, it could take up to 14 treatments to fully remove the tattoo.
How is it done?
Lasers! Not totally unlike the lasers used in permanent hair removal, these lasers use wavelengths of light to treat the target. In the case of tattoos, the target is the colors in the tattoo. Dr Ilyas compares the process to having a boulder in the center of a construction project. “You can try hacking away at it to get it down into smaller pieces to move but it will take forever. If you blast the rock into lots of tiny fragments with a smaller surface area for each fragment, it’s easier to move all of the tiny little pieces.”
When you first made the mistake of getting this tattoo, the ink was deposited into the dermis of your skin, which triggered an inflammatory reaction. Your cells know it should do something to get rid of the ink but because it’s so large (and, often, deep), the color stays put. The laser “blasts” the ink, breaking it into small enough pieces for your cells to dissolve it. Both Dr. Saedi and Sorrentino use Pico lasers, which has helped perfect the process and provide more than 90% clearance.
Not all tattoos are removed the same way
Color, size, and the type of ink used all affect how well the laser works. Green is an especially difficult color to remove and can leave your skin looking bruised. Flesh colored or lighter inks are also more challenging to remove—Sorrentino says that light-absorbing colors, like black, are the easiest to remove. Blood flow also plays a significant role in the process. Areas with better bloodflow, like your torso, will take to the laser better than your extremities will. Additionally, tattoo ink is not regulated—at least not in the United States—so there is no way of knowing exactly what the makeup of someone’s tattoo is.
Yes—it’s going to hurt
With the exception of people whose pain threshold is sky-high, the process is painful but professionals will take steps in reducing the amount of pain you’ll feel. Some use topical numbing creams or ask patients to apply it themselves 30 minutes prior to their session, while others go as far as injecting patients with a local anesthetic like lidocaine. The area may also be pink and itchy after the treatment. After each session, you’ll need to keep the area clean, moist, and covered, according to Dr. Ilyar, by using gentle soap, Aquaphor or Vaseline, and a non-stick dressing.
Am I ready yet?
Almost. Like any body-altering procedure or treatment, research your provider ahead of time. While a med-spa can be licensed to offer tattoo removal treatments, both Drs. Ilyal and Saedi say it’s best to see a board-certified, experienced dermatologist or nurse practitioner. While it’s possible for any dermatologist’s office to have the right equipment, you want to make sure you see someone whose speciality is tattoo removal.
In extreme cases, allergic reactions can occur as the laser breaks up the pigment. It’s also important to manage your expectations and understand you might not have a blank canvas after the treatment. Hypopigmentation can occur, resulting in light spots or lines where the tattoo once was. Additionally, while there are creams and peels on the market that claim to help fade tattoos, they won’t be as effective as laser treatments unless the tattoo is on a very thin-skinned area—and even then, the acids and exfoliants in these topical treatments can scar or damage your skin more than the laser.
Like any procedure, including getting a tattoo, there are risks. But the tattoo removal process has come a long way and the results are impressive. It might be easier to never get the tattoo in the first place, but hindsight is 20/20 and we’re okay with living with our mistakes, just so long as we don’t have to see it inked across our bodies every day.
If you’re a commitment-phobe, consider