Vol.2, No.4

How to remove a tattoo: what is laser tattoo removal, and what does it cost?

Options for how to remove a tattoo with laser tattoo removal.

Arm tattoo
Photo Credit: Karen Grotzinger
On Karen's twenty-first birthday in 1984, she wanted to do something wild, something that she'd always wanted to do, but had been too young and too afraid to do. She went out with several of her girlfriends with three goals in mind; Go to a strip club, get drunk, get a tattoo.

The next morning, Karen's night of debauchery was a blur. She remembered little about the night's events until she stepped into the shower and felt a peculiar sting around her navel. Karen looked down to see a red-dimmed cartoon drawing of daisy petals gathered around her belly button, the stem snaking dangerously towards her pubic regions.

"I was mortified," she said, with a laugh as she leans over her cup of coffee. We are sitting in a small coffee shop along the main drag of the neighborhood in which she lives now. At almost 31, Karen now has two daughters, a beautiful home out in the suburbs, and a minivan. Just looking at her in her conservative looking Old Navy t-shirt and oh-so-comfortable sweatpants, it's hard to believe that a self-proclaimed soccer mom once had a tattoo of a daisy around her navel.

"I mean, at first, I thought 'What did I do?!'" she goes on, "but then, you know, as I got used to it, I guess, it was kind of…I don't know, cool for a while. You know, when my friends saw it and everything."

But, of course, the march of time quickly changed her viewpoint. As Karen got older and began to outgrow childish things, she soon began to regret her impulsive decision and decided to have it removed. After putting it off for several years due to her lack of time and money, she was finally forced to make a decision. On the day soon-to-be husband proposed, the decision to have it removed through laser surgery could no longer be avoided.

"I just thought, 'If I got pregnant, this little daisy's going to turn into a sunflower'," she joked. "I just imagined myself 8 months pregnant with this huge yellow flower stretched over my stomach and that was all it took for me."

Karen's story is not uncommon. All too often many people make the wrong choice when it comes to selecting a tattoo and are faced with the option of having to have it removed. Like Karen, most people opt for hiding it or getting it covered with another tattoo as opposed to going through the process of having it removed. But if you've reached the point where you can't take the embarrassment an incorrectly chosen tattoo can bring, there are options available.

What is Laser tattoo removal? Simply put, it's the process of removing the tattoo pigment under your skin by applying low pulses of light from a laser to your skin. After the laser is applied to the cells pigmented by the tattoo ink, your own cells come in and remove the treated cells, making the tattoo appear to fade away over time. The process usually takes more than one application depending on the size, location, and your general healing capacity, but it is the most commonly used method of removal today.

Currently, there are three types of lasers used in the removal available; Q-switched Nd:Yag, Q-switched Alexandrite, and the Q-switched Rubis. Which is the right choice for you? Let's review the pros and cons of each.

Q-switched Nd:Yag

Pros: This laser is the standard for most laser removal facilities. Lightning of the tattoo using this particular type of laser is almost immediate. Because of the frequency in which the laser is used, colors such as black and red can be removed without difficulty and with little scarring.

Cons: Though black and red can be removed fairly easily, it has little effect on colors like blue, green, and turquoise. Also, it is more geared towards light skin. Tanned or dark skin has shown unpredictable results with this laser.

Q-switched Alexandrite

Pros: This laser has most of the same qualities as the Nd:Yag such as minimal scarring. It's also excellent for not only black, but blue and green tattoos. Plus, it is recommended for tanned or dark skin.

Cons: Unfortunately, perhaps because of it's inferior construction (the Alexandrite is made with a crystal that doesn't tolerate laser impacts well), and it's more pricey than the Nd:Yag in many facilities. Though it has no problem removing black, blue, and green pigmentation, it is not recommended for red ink removal. This laser is preferred for hair removal in many place.

Q-Switched Rubis

Pros: The queen mother of laser tattoos, this, the oldest of the three, has been used since the 1960s. It is designed to destroy the targeted area without damaging or changing the rest of your skin, minimalizing scarring and keloiding in the surrounding skin. It is not only used with tattoo removal, but also with melanic lesions and a variety of other pigmentation disorders in the skin, including very delicate vascular discoloration disorders. In the way of tattoo removal, it is recommended for blue, black, and green tattoos.

Cons: Tanned or dark skin is not recommended with this laser and like the Alexandrite, red pigment cannot be removed using the Rubis.

Shop around to various places in your area and ask questions to all the facilities you encounter. Important questions are:

1) Cost - Prices for laser removal can range anywhere from $250 - 800 or more. Since no one will give you an out-the-door price without seeing the extent of your tattoo, the first thing you should find out is whether or not a consultation will cost you anything. Find out what you have to pay, if anything, just to see the doctor first.

2) Pain - Fortunately, in this day and age, laser removal has become a relatively painless procedure. It doesn't hurt to inquire about it just the same. Everyone has a different pain tolerance and every facility has different policies on how to deal with it. It won't hurt to ask if any kind of anesthesia is used, if there is pain involved.

3) Frequency - It is not very likely that you will go in, get your tattoo removed and walk out that day completely tattoo-free. Ask how many visits it takes to remove a tattoo. And if you can't nail them down with an out-the-door over the phone, try to get a ballpark.

If you're like my friend Karen, the pain and embarrassment of a tattoo gone wrong is something that you'd like nothing more than to put behind you, but if you're going to get yours removed, remember to do your research and don't be afraid to ask questions.

As for Karen, when I asked her what she thought of herself at 8 months pregnant and tattoo free, she had only one thing to say: "Beautiful."