How bad does laser tattoo removal hurt?
I've seen some videos... it looks painless. It can't be worse than getting the tattoo in the first place, right?
A laser tattoo removal procedure is always somewhat painful. Tattoos are designed to be permanent, so the ink is often placed deep within the skin by the tattoo artist. As to how painful it is to remove an unwanted tattoo depends on a few factors:
- Older tattoos are easier to remove than new tattoos. Over time the ink in a tattoo naturally fades. Consequently much of the removal process has often already been accomplished before we even start. By contrast, newer tattoos with heavy ink can be very difficult to remove. When all that ink was laid down originally, the intent was to make it last forever.
- Some colors are very difficult to remove. Tattoo removal works because the laser light reacts to specific colors of ink. Some laser wavelengths are well-suited to certain tattoo pigments but poorly suited to others. Whether your own tattoo can be easily removed heavily depends on the color choices made back when you first got it
- Some locations are more sensitive than others. If your tattoo is on your upper arm, the removal won't be nearly as painful as if you had it on your inner thigh or worse, your fingers, for example.
- The depth of the ink matters. If you went to a professional tattoo artist, he or she may have placed the ink very deep within the dermis. More amateur tattoos often leave the ink at a depth closer to the surface. Ink at deeper depths is more difficult to remove.
- Your own personal pain threshold matters. I’ve had some patients tell me the experience is relatively painless while others say it's as painful as getting the original tattoo. Everyone experiences pain differently, so there's no way of saying how painful it will be for you.
For some tattoo removal patients the experience is nearly painless, while others find it fairly painful. How much or little tattoo removal hurts depends on the characteristics of your specific tattoo, your skin type, the age of your tattoo, and the type of laser treatment being used to remove it.
Because laser technology works by targeting specific colors of ink, the colors used in your tattoo greatly affect the difficulty of the procedure.
Prior to removal your technician will numb the area in question with a topical anesthetic and use ice packs (or another cooling system) to greatly reduce any potential pain you could experience.
The answer also depends on your specific tattoo removal goals. Many patients just want the tattoo partially removed or faded just enough so their tattoo artist can create a cover-up tattoo. In this case you would likely need fewer sessions than having the tattoo completely removed.
The only way to get an idea of how difficult your tattoo removal will be is to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist or plastic surgeon to discuss your tattoo in person. In general, the tattoo removal procedure doesn't hurt as much as the original inking, but don’t forget that the removal process always includes some level of pain.
Unfortunately, the short answer is yes, laser tattoo removal always involves some degree of pain. While everyone's pain threshold is different, most patients report that the pain of tattoo removal isn’t as bad as getting a tattoo in the first place.
Prior to the tattoo removal procedure we apply a topical numbing cream to help reduce the pain. We can also inject lidocaine local anesthetic into the treatment area prior to the treatment. Then, during the laser removal process we cool the skin with a special machine that serves to make you feel much more comfortable. Many patients describe the sensation of laser tattoo removal as being similar to being snapped by a rubber band.
Keep in mind that the amount of pain you'll feel has a lot to do with your actual tattoo. Very dark tattoos or new tattoos with heavy ink can be hard to remove. Also, when targeting the ink particles within your skin, different colors react better to different wavelengths of laser light. Your tattoo removal experience and the ease of the removal process depend heavily on the specific tattoo pigments that were used by the tattoo artist in the first place.
You should also be prepared to experience a little pain and discomfort during the healing process as well. After your treatment you should expect peeling, flaky skin. It's also common for the affected area to feel tender and to experience redness or bruising. Depending on the nature of your tattoo and the type of laser being used, there may also be some pinpoint bleeding which can last for up to 48 hours following the procedure.
The removal process typically requires a few separate treatment sessions. Exactly how many sessions depends on the specifics of your tattoo. In most cases, the tattoo removal process involves between five and eight sessions with gaps of five weeks between them.
Without a personal consultation I can’t offer you anything other than general estimates regarding the difficulty of removal or the number of laser treatments that will be required. At our clinic we’ve had excellent success removing entire tattoos, even in situations where the ink depth and colors represented significant challenges. If you've become dissatisfied with a tattoo for personal or aesthetic reasons, I encourage you to meet with a dermatologist or plastic surgeon who is experienced with tattoo removal for a personal consultation.