Body art has been a part of human civilization for thousands of years. As a form of self-expression, tattoos bring pride to those who choose to get them. However, when a permanent mark on the skin becomes a regret rather than a positive reminder, many people seek out tattoo removal. At Metro Dermatology in Elmhurst, NY, our experienced dermatologists and staff offer laser tattoo removal with comprehensive and compassionate care.
Laser Tattoo Removal: What You Need to Know
Understanding the Science of Tattoos
Before we can discuss tattoo removal, we must first have an understanding of how tattoos permanently adhere to the skin. This involves knowing a bit about the science of your body’s immune system. It also involves understanding what is actually in tattoo ink and how it is applied.
What’s in Tattoo Ink
Tattoo ink is basically a simple solution with two parts – a colorant and a carrier that moves the colorant where it is supposed to go. Most colorants are pigments created from metals, which do not require a chemical reaction to remain permanent. This is the benefit of pigments overdyes – dyes need to react with the chemistry of the skin in order to keep their color.
The colorant is dissolved into a carrier, which is a fluid that is typically made from distilled water or a form of alcohol. Carriers may also contain glycerin or witch hazel. It is important to note that many manufacturers do not release proprietary ingredient blends, and some artists actually mix their inks themselves, so research is always advised before getting a tattoo.
The Dermis and Epidermis
The first two layers of skin are called the epidermis and dermis. The epidermis is the outer layer that acts as a waterproof barrier to the outside world. It protects from exposure to ultraviolet radiation, harsh weather conditions, and intruders such as bacteria and viruses. As the first line of defense, it is also the layer that takes the most damage over time.
The dermis is the second layer, and its flexibility cushions the body from stress. It contains sebaceous glands, which produce the necessary oils that support the skin’s elasticity and strength. It also contains hair follicles and receptors that are responsible for your sense of touch, pressure, and pain.
Tattoo Ink Placement
Tattoos penetrate through the epidermis and deeper into the dermis. As it penetrates, it creates a wound in the outer layer of skin which will eventually heal and scab over. However, as it does so, the ink that was delivered to the second layer of skin gets trapped underneath.
It’s All About Immune Response
Your immune system is designed to defend against foreign intruders such as bacteria and viruses. Anytime the body recognizes a particle or organism as foreign, it uses white blood cells to mount an attack. This is what keeps our bodies strong and in peak performance. Interestingly, it is this very response that gives our tattoos their permanency.
White blood cells called macrophages actually try to ingest the pigment particles injected into the skin. Since the particles are too large for them, they’ll never quite succeed – but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying. Macrophages make a home near the tattoo, and when they die, others show up to take their place. This activity is what keeps your tattoo ink color in place for years.
During the First Month
As white blood cells are continually taking up particles and promoting the outer healing process, the junction where the dermis meets the epidermis also begins healing from the inside. Some particles of ink are still being eliminated by macrophages through the epidermis of the skin. These macrophages continue to concentrate around this junction area.
After Two to Three Months
After several weeks, this junction becomes fully reformed and will no longer lose any ink carried to the epidermis by white blood cells. The ink is now essentially trapped inside the dermis membranes. Cells called fibroblasts (originally stimulated by the macrophage activity) also hold the ink in place and contribute to its permanency.
How Does Laser Tattoo Removal Work?
Now that you understand how the tattoo particles are placed into your skin and remain there, it will be easier to grasp the concepts behind laser tattoo removal. Generally speaking, the process begins by breaking up the tattoo particles with a laser. This process is repeated until the particles are no longer visible.
So what happens to the particles after they are broken up? Where do they go? Most are removed by the body and eliminated through the skin. The remaining particles require repeated laser treatment so that they can get broken up into subsequently smaller and smaller particles.
How does Long Will It Take?
It can take several sessions for the tattoos to be completely removed. Several factors can influence how long it will take, including your age and the size and color of your tattoo. You will also need to wait several weeks between sessions to give your body a chance to flush out the particles that are broken up by the laser.
It may seem surprising that color affects the number of sessions you’ll need, but there is science behind that, too. Black absorbs all wavelengths of light and is, therefore, easier to break up without needing specific laser requirements. Other colors, on the other hand, require specifically-calibrated lasers at specific wavelengths.
This can mean more sessions are required to fully break up these colored particles. Nonetheless, your tattoo will appear visibly lighter after each session.
Time and Consistency
For effective removal, it is necessary to give your body the time and treatment consistency it needs. The immune system will be activated by laser treatment, and the laser tattoo removal process relies on white blood cells to carry away the particles created by the laser. Only once the first layers of particles are flushed away can the deeper particles be targeted.
In addition, the body needs time to heal from the process, and trying to pace treatments too close together can actually result in over-treatment, which comes with unnecessary side effects. Laser tattoo removal treatment is an exercise in the old adage “patience is a virtue.”
Who Is a Good Candidate for Tattoo Removal?
Nearly everyone who desires tattoo removal can receive treatment. However, as with many medical processes, there are certain factors that make some people better candidates than others. The medical team at Metro Dermatology will be able to work with any concerns you have and devise a personalized plan for your tattoo removal.
Age and Health
It is no secret that younger, healthier skin recovers more quickly than mature skin. Since tattoo removal relies on your immune system to remove the tiny particles of color created by the laser, the stronger your immunity is, the more effective the treatment. That being said, it is best to undergo treatment when you are not immunocompromised.
Skin Tone and Color
People of any skin tone or color can receive laser tattoo removal treatment. However, fair-skinned people naturally have an advantage, as the contrast between their skin color and the tattoo colors is greater. Darker-skinned people sometimes require longer treatments, as extra caution is required to avoid any skin lightening or darkening in treatment areas.
The older a tattoo is, the easier it is to break up the colors. In addition, since black is the easiest color to remove, an all-black tattoo that has faded or is less dense will be removed more quickly than others. Again, the amount of time it takes to remove a tattoo is also proportionate to its size.
Those who live a healthy lifestyle and eat balanced meals will have greater healing and resilience after laser tattoo removal treatments. The skin relies on adequate hydration and necessary fats to remain supple. Skin with more elasticity will rebound more quickly from treatment than skin that is dry or thin.
In addition, smokers have a tendency to experience longer healing times. By cutting back or quitting smoking altogether, you’ll give your body its best chance at treatment and recovery.
The Process: What to Expect
For several days prior to your treatment, it is best to minimize sun exposure and stop any habits that may make your skin more sensitive, such as tanning, waxing, or bleaching. Since you will be receiving laser treatment, you will want to make sure your skin is not already being exposed to any other irritations.
It may also benefit you to avoid taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID) such as Advil and Motrin. These medications can increase bleeding, so they are best avoided when undergoing any kind of skin treatment. Smoking slows healing time, so if you are a smoker try to reduce your frequency (or stop altogether) in the weeks prior to your treatment.
Laser tattoo removal requires minimal downtime and is treated as an outpatient service. Depending on the nature of your tattoo, the process should only take a few minutes (occasionally a bit longer for a large tattoo), and you should be able to return to your normal activities immediately.
During your session, our medical staff will first test your skin’s response to the laser treatment. This is to be sure that the correct energy and pulsation are being used. You may be offered a topical anesthetic cream to minimize any discomfort, but most people report that they are able to tolerate the procedure easily.
After-treatment care is very important for proper healing. While you will be able to return to work and your normal daily activities after treatment, it may be helpful to stick to an after-care plan. Wearing loose-fitting clothes around the treatment area can reduce the possibility of chafing or irritation from fabrics.
In addition, using an ice pack will soothe the area and help with any inflammation. You may also want to apply an antibiotic cream and keep the area covered with a bandage. It is still important to avoid sun exposure as much as possible.
A Technological Vanguard
Prior to now, alternatives for tattoo removal were not ideal. Excision surgery often came with significant scarring, and carbon dioxide lasers were much more invasive. Newer technologies are on the horizon, such as removable tattoo inks and shorter pulse-duration lasers. These may eventually make tattoo removal easier, but for now, laser tattoo removal is the only truly effective, non-invasive solution.
Call Us Today
Laser tattoo removal is the best option for nearly anyone who desires to have a tattoo removed. The treatment is typically completed within a few moments and requires minimal downtime, meaning that you can resume your normal daily activities immediately. Contact our experienced doctors at Metro Dermatology in Elmhurst, NY today to develop a treatment plan for you.