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How to Remove a Tattoo

Man with tattoos, touching his chin thoughtfully
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

For many people, tattoos are a way to commemorate significant people, places, and things with permanent body art. But what if you want to remove some or all of your tattoos? Here’s what you need to know.

Unfortunately, what once seemed like a great idea (tattooing the name of your girlfriend on your bicep) can sometimes become a source of stress and embarrassment when circumstances change (you break up). If this sounds familiar and you find yourself with a tattoo you regret, you’re probably wondering: what are my options?

There are many myths about tattoo removal. A simple Google search will turn up everything from topical creams to surgeries. Here, we’ll break down the truth about whether or not you can remove a tattoo.

Tattoo Removal: What Options Really Exist?

Here’s the good news: it is possible to remove most tattoos fully.

Here’s the bad news: tattoo removal is lengthy, expensive, and potentially painful. And even if you achieve full removal, your skin might never look the same as it did before you got the tattoo. However, for most people who regret their tattoos, even a long, expensive removal process is better than keeping their ink forever.

There are two effective methods of tattoo removal: laser removal and excision.

During laser tattoo removal, a pulsating laser breaks down the ink in your tattoo into tiny particles which are then cleaned up by your white blood cells and removed. Lasers can remove most tattoos, though they sometimes struggle to remove specific colors, like yellow or orange.

Surgical excision is a more invasive form of tattoo removal. During excision, the tattoo is removed using a scalpel, and the resulting wound is closed using sutures. Let’s take a closer look at these procedures.

In addition to laser and surgical removal, you may also have come across the idea of chemical peels and dermabrasion. With the former, a chemical solution is swabbed over the tattoo to eat through the skin and destroy the tattoo. With the latter, a mechanical device, not unlike an orbital sander, is used to rub off the skin through multiple layers to destroy the tattoo. Both methods have very unpredictable outcomes and can result in broad areas of scar tissue. As such, neither methods are recommended.

Finally, while chemical peels and abrasions do work (but with an incredibly high risk of scarring), you can skip all “miracle” creams, lightening creams, and other snake oil offerings as they don’t work at all. There’s no cream you can buy off Amazon or at the drugstore that will do anything at all to remove a tattoo, so it’s best to save your money for real treatments.

 Laser Tattoo Removal: Expect Multiple Sessions

The vast majority of tattoo removal candidates opt for laser tattoo removal for a few reasons.

First and foremost, laser tattoo removal is less invasive than surgical excision. It only takes a couple of minutes to perform, even on very large tattoos. People who get laser tattoo removal are awake the entire time and don’t need to take any medicine before or after their procedure. Recovery typically only takes a few days.

Laser tattoo removal works on all types of tattoos, while surgical excision is only an option for small tattoos. You don’t need to go to a doctor to get laser tattoo removal; some tattoo parlors may even have removal machines in-house.

Woman having a wrist tattoo removed via laser removal methods

While there are many pros to laser tattoo removal, there are also some cons. Laser tattoo removal can be very damaging to your skin, so it’s essential to go to a technician who knows what they’re doing. The process takes a long time, too. You’ll need to wait at least twelve weeks between each session to allow your skin to recover and reduce the risk of complications.

Laser tattoo removal is also very painful. Patients liken it to being continuously stung by bees. Thankfully, the treatments are quick, with most over in under two minutes, and there are several ways you can treat the pain.

Unfortunately, laser tattoo removal isn’t 100% effective on all tattoos, since specific colors are tough to erase.

When you go for laser tattoo removal, you’ll meet with a technician. They’ll discuss your goals and estimate the number of sessions it will take to get rid of your tattoo.

During the removal itself, you’ll be provided with UV glasses to protect your eyes. The technician will numb your skin with ice packs and cold air. Depending on the color and size of your tattoo, the technician may use one or two different lasers to break down the ink. After the session is over, you can use an ice pack to ease the pain. You’ll need to keep the area clean, cool, and dry for the next few days until it heals. While uncommon, some blistering might occur.

Depending on the size, color, and saturation of your tattoo, you might need anywhere from two to ten sessions to complete the removal process. That means you might spend two or more years removing your ink.

Surgical Excision: Best for Small Tattoos

A surgical excision is only an option for small tattoos. The process is precisely what it sounds like: the skin with the tattoo is cut out, and then, the remaining skin is sewn back together, like a wound.

Surgical excision is a more involved process than laser tattoo removal. You’ll have to go to a doctor for the procedure, preferably a skilled plastic surgeon. Depending on the size or your tattoo, you’ll need either local or general anesthesia. Recovery also takes longer. You’ll need to care for the wound just like you would with any other injury, keeping it clean and dry. You may need pain medication to deal with the aftermath of your procedure and might be left with a scar.

Surgical excision does have several pros. It’s faster than laser removal and can be completed in just one session. It also works on all colors of tattoos. If you have a small tattoo and are looking for a quick and highly effective option, surgical excision might be the way to go.

Other Tattoo Removal Options

If you don’t want to do laser tattoo removal or surgical excision, what are your options? Unfortunately, there are currently no other effective removal methods. You’re limited to covering it up in one of two ways.

First, you can temporarily cover up the tattoo—if you wanted to hide it for a special event or such—with makeup specially formulated for the task. If that sounds like a good solution for you, check out our full treatment of the topic with tips and tricks here.

Second, you can permanently cover up the tattoo…with another tattoo. Fixing a problem you have with your tattoo by adding more tattooing seems counterintuitive, but it’s a workable solution if you’re not opposed to having a tattoo and just don’t want the one you currently have. If you have something simple, like a name or small object, you may be able to cover it up with a different design. Keep in mind, however, that coverup tattoos will be larger and darker than what you currently have. If you decide you don’t like your new tattoo in the future, you’ll still have to pursue laser removal or excision.

Tattoo removal can be long, difficult, and expensive. That being said, it is possible! If you have a tattoo you regret, you don’t need to keep it forever. Just make sure to stick to the removal options that actually work, and only get them done by a trusted professional.

Hayley Milliman Hayley Milliman
Hayley is a former Teach for America teacher turned curriculum developer and writer. Over the past five years, she's written hundreds of articles on everything from education to personal finance to history. She's co-author of the book  Females. Read Full Bio »
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