What’s the Fastest, Most Effective Way to Remove a Tattoo?

Key takeaways:

  • Laser treatments that specifically target the pigment in tattoo ink are the best option for tattoo removal.

  • How well and how quickly laser tattoo removal works depends on multiple factors such as the size and color of your tattoo. 

  • Depending on how many laser treatments you need, the tattoo removal process can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. 

Close-up of a woman's abdomen with a large tattoo at the beginning of tattoo removal with a laser.
praetorianphoto/E+ via Getty Images

Tattoos are easy to get but hard to get rid of. If you want to try and remove a tattoo, lasers are the best option. With today’s advances, lasers can remove various ink colors with fewer treatments and the least scarring. Your results, however, may vary.

Here, we’ll cover why lasers are the best way to remove a tattoo, what factors impact the quality of your results, and how much the process might cost.

What effective options are available to remove a tattoo?

The most effective way to remove a tattoo is through laser treatments. Lasers directly target the pigment in tattoo ink with minimal damage to the surrounding skin. Several types of providers or businesses offer laser treatments, including:

  • Dermatologists

  • Plastic surgeons

  • Tattoo shops

  • Medical spas

You may want to consider going to a dermatologist for your laser treatments, especially if you have an underlying medical condition. A healthcare provider can help you understand your risks and benefits as well as what you can expect from laser treatments. 

Other tattoo removal options are available on the market, such as creams and at-home kits. Keep in mind any do-it-yourself tattoo removal product or technique removes layers of skin and has a higher risk of infection. These methods are also unlikely to work and can permanently damage your skin. 

How does laser tattoo removal work?

Laser removal specifically targets and destroys the pigment in your tattoo’s ink. Once the laser breaks up the pigment, it’s cleared out by your immune system. Each laser removal session destroys more and more of the pigment to reduce the visibility of your tattoo. 

Most people need multiple laser removal treatments — usually at least 7 to 10 sessions — to get the best results. Treatment will be spaced out with 6 to 8 weeks between each session. It can take months to years to complete laser removal based on factors such as your tattoo size and skin type. 

Tattoo removal can be painful. How painful — and whether or not it’s more painful than getting the tattoo — will vary from person to person. Most providers will numb your skin with anesthesia, given by injection or as a topical applied directly to your skin. As the laser targets the tattoo ink pigment, the area may “frost” or turn white. Each treatment session can last up to an hour, depending on your tattoo. 

How to care for your skin after laser tattoo removal

It’s normal to have redness and swelling after laser tattoo removal treatments. In addition to redness and swelling, you may also notice:

  • Dark or white marks

  • Changes in the color of your tattoo

  • Tenderness

  • Crusting

  • Scabbing

You can use cool compresses to lessen any discomfort after treatment. To care for the area, follow your provider’s instructions. Most advise using a plain moisturizer like petroleum jelly for 10 to 14 days after treatment. 

Blisters can also happen after tattoo removal, which you can cover and allow to heal on their own. If you get a large blister, however, you can use a sterile needle to puncture it, allow it to drain, and leave all the skin intact. Then apply petroleum jelly and cover it with a dressing. Tell your provider right away if you notice the redness spreading, pus, or yellow crusting. These could be signs of an infection. 

It’s also important to protect your lasered skin from sun exposure, which can affect the healing process and increase the risk of scarring. You’ll also need to avoid the following activities until your skin is healed:  

  • Intense exercise

  • Saunas

  • Swimming

  • Hot tubs

  • Anything that causes friction on your skin 

With any laser procedure, more serious complications are also possible. This can include scarring, infection, and incomplete tattoo removal after you’ve completed a full course of treatment. 

What to expect with laser tattoo removal results

Even though laser tattoo removal is the most effective method, keep in mind it doesn’t always “erase” all evidence of the tattoo. You may still see a faint outline of the old tattoo or notice the texture of your skin has changed in that area.  

How well you respond to tattoo removal depends on several different factors, including:

  1. The type of tattoo: Tattoos that are professionally done, darkly inked, or have several layers are more difficult to remove.  

  2. Ink color: Black tattoos are often easiest to remove while white, yellow, and orange are among the most difficult. As a general rule, more pigments mean more laser treatments.

  3. Age of the tattoo: Older tattoos have likely faded and will respond faster than fresh tattoos. 

  4. Size of the tattoo: Large tattoos take longer to remove than smaller ones.

  5. Body location: Tattoos on the feet or legs are usually hardest to remove. 

  6. Whether you smoke: Tattoo removal doesn’t seem to work as well in smokers. The reason could be that smoking affects the immune response you need to clear the pigment.

  7. Your skin type: Darker skin types are more prone to skin color changes and scarring where a tattoo has been lasered. As a result, your provider may need to use lower laser settings, and more treatment sessions might be necessary. In addition, people of color often need to wait longer between treatments until the skin is fully healed.

  8. The type of laser: Lasers vary in their wavelength and what types of inks and tattoos they work best on. As a result, you may need different lasers for different tattoo ink colors.

Who shouldn’t get laser tattoo removal?

If you’re thinking about tattoo removal, you have to weigh the risks and benefits. There’s a chance it won’t remove all the ink or that it’ll leave discoloration and scarring. This is especially important for people of color as well as for those with vitiligo or a history of keloids.

Other reasons tattoo removal might not be for you include:

  • If you have certain types of light sensitivity

  • If you take medications that increase your sensitivity to sunlight (like doxycycline or hydrochlorothiazide)

  • If you have a seizure disorder triggered by light

  • If you’ve taken the medication isotretinoin (Accutane) in the last 6 months

  • If you have an infection or open wound in the area to be treated

  • If you have a systemic illness like lupus

  • If you have suspicious moles or skin growths in the treatment area

  • If you’ve had gold therapy

  • If you’re pregnant or nursing

If you have one of these risk factors, talk to your healthcare provider about tattoo laser removal. They can help you evaluate your risks and options. 

How much does laser tattoo removal cost? 

Tattoo removal can cost anywhere from $25 to thousands per session, with the average being nearly $450 per session. What you’ll spend depends on the:

  • Size and color of your tattoo

  • Type of laser used

  • How many treatments you need

  • Which provider you choose 

It will be more expensive to remove tattoos that are larger or have multiple colors. Older model lasers might be cheaper, but could require more treatment sessions. It’s a good idea to ask your provider to explain the different laser options available for your particular tattoo. 

Tattoo removal is considered an elective procedure and isn’t typically covered by insurance. In most cases, you also can’t use a health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA) to pay for laser tattoo removal.

The bottom line

With advances in technology, lasers are the best option for tattoo removal. They selectively target the colored ink in your tattoo with minimal effects on the surrounding skin. Tattoo removal takes multiple treatment sessions and costs on average about $450 per session. How well laser tattoo removal works depends on various factors, including the size, age, and color of your tattoo, your skin tone, and where the tattoo is located on your body. 

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