How Painful Is It to Get a Tattoo Removed?

How Painful Is It to Get a Tattoo Removed
Credit: Kheila Cruz

If tattoo artists had a dime for every time a client asked them, “Is this going to hurt?”, there’d be a lot of billionaire tattoo artists out there. Moreover, a question like this has answers that are as obvious as it is inconvenient—because yes, the process in which a design is inserted into your skin with a needle is bound to be a tad painful. By that same token, the process in which that design is removed (often with lasers) will likely hurt a bit, too.

But that doesn’t mean you should dread having to schedule a tattoo removal appointment. If anything, you should be excited to get rid of whatever design you’ve decided that you no longer want. You just have to go into the process with a few things in mind. So, we spoke with Paul M. Friedman, MD, director of Dermatology & Laser Surgery Center in Houston, Texas, to get the full story on tattoo removal.

Before you even arrive for your first appointment, you’ll likely have already answered a few key questions from your dermatologist, including: How old is the tattoo that you wish to have removed? How big is it? What types and colors of ink were used? All of your answers will help your doctor estimate how many appointments will be needed to remove it — and at what frequency your appointments should be scheduled. (And if your doctor doesn’t ask these questions, consider it to be a red flag.)

Dr. Friedman says most tattoos take a minimum of five sessions to be removed, which can come as a surprise to some patients, who may assume that the lasers used in removal treatments should work faster than that. For the record, it only takes this long to remove a tattoo because it’s actually your immune system (not the lasers) that does most of the work of expelling the ink. And, naturally, it’s important to give your body time to complete this gradual process.

That said, tattoo removal technology is continuing to develop and advance. Dr. Friedman mentions picosecond lasers and PFD patches as particularly promising tools. Where the former has been found to be more efficient than other types of lasers, the latter helps expedite the tattoo’s removal while making it safer overall. And, probably most importantly to you, the patient, a more efficient removal process could very well mean a less painful one.

In addition to more efficient tools, you’ll have the option to be treated with anesthesia or nitrous oxide during the procedure, providing that a medical physician is administering your tattoo removal. Friedman explains that the anesthetic will last up to an hour after the treatment. As anyone who’s gotten laughing gas at the dentist knows, this will certainly help reduce your overall pain.

After your first appointment, Friedman recommends using a cold compress for roughly 10 minutes every hour for the rest of the day—his office actually offers bags of frozen peas to apply to the treated area right after the procedure. He also says your doctor may suggest taking extra strength Tylenol following your session, but he is quick to add that you shouldn’t feel so uncomfortable that you need to keep taking it for much longer. “Pain is very important to us as a sign of infection,” Friedman notes, adding that anyone who experiences pain after their laser treatment to the point that they need to manage it with medication should notify their doctor right away.

In between sessions, Friedman says to keep your tattoo out of the sun and away from possible contaminants, such as avoiding getting your new tattoo wet in a swimming pool or lake. Again, it’s important to treat the tattoo that you’re removing like a wound and avoid letting it get infected. So, be especially carefully to keep it clean and protected for as long as ten days after the procedure, Friedman says.

One last thing to keep in mind: Even once the removal process is complete—which might take longer than initially estimated, it’s possible that some sign of the tattoo will remain, maybe as a faint outline or scar. Friedman says the best way to reduce your risk of complications or adverse effects is to work only with a board-certified dermatologist who already has plenty of experience under their belt. In short, he says, “do your homework.” Doing so will save you a lot of pain—figuratively and maybe literally—in the long run.

If you’re a commitment-phobe, consider Inkbox Tattoos, which look like permanent tattoos but only last for one to two weeks. You’ll have all the fun and beauty of a piece with none of the potential for a costly and painful removal process when your taste and preferences evolve. Just a heads up, Inside Out is powered by the folks at Inkbox. It’s all part of our shared mission to empower you to tell your unique story, be it for now or forever.

Related: How Painful Is It to Get a Tattoo?

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