9 Factors That Determine Tattoo Removal Success
Originally published on May 23, 2014. Updated August 17, 2021 with additional information.
Since each tattoo is unique, it’s nearly impossible to make general statements about how long it takes to remove a tattoo. Variables that affect the tattoo removal process include where your tattoo is located, the depth and color of ink, your skin tone, and the strength of your immune system among other factors. While it is nearly impossible to guarantee the removal of a tattoo within a specific number of treatment sessions, tattoo removal experts can assess the following variables to predict tattoo removal success.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss the common factors that determine how quickly a tattoo can be removed via laser tattoo removal.
The Tattoo Removal Process
Laser tattoo removal can significantly diminish the appearance of your tattoo, and may be able to remove it completely. Lasers use heat and light at specific wavelengths to break up the ink in your tattoo. These ink particles are then removed by your body’s own immune system.
The tattoo removal process requires several visits to a specialist. During your first consultation with a professional, you’ll be given a general timeline that’s based on the location, age, and color of your tattoo. It’s possible your body will respond more quickly, or more slowly, to treatment than expected.
On average, tattoo removal requires 8-10 laser treatment sessions, spaced 6-8 weeks apart. The total time (and number of treatment options) required to remove a tattoo can depend on several factors.
Factors That Determine How Quickly A Tattoo Can Be Removed
A strong immune system is your greatest ally when it comes to quick tattoo removal. Laser treatment uses heat to break down ink particles in your tattoo. These particles must still be cleared by your body. The more active your immune system, the more quickly these broken-down ink particles are carried away.
Typically green, blue, and black inks are easier to remove, while red, orange, yellow, and white inks are progressively more challenging. New devices, such as the PiQo4 laser, have improved the efficacy and efficiency in treating these tattoo colors. A recent study demonstrated that 1-2 treatment sessions led to at least 75% clearance of blue and green pigments with the PiQo4 device, with more than two-thirds of tattoos approaching 100% clearance. Another 2012 study also showed 75% clearance in black pigment as early as 2-4 treatment sessions.
Older tattoos are prone to pigment fading and may be more easily removed compared to newer tattoos.
One variable that is undisputed is that larger tattoos require more treatments than smaller tattoos. A 2010 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that tattoos over 12 inches in diameter were least successfully removed after 10 treatments.
Professional vs Amateur Tattoo
Professional tattoo artists intend for their tattoos to last. They use ample ink which is placed deeply into the skin. The deeper the ink, the more difficult the removal. While an amateur artist might use less ink, their tattoos tend to scar more. If your tattoo has scarred over, it’s more difficult to remove because the ink gets buried further into the skin.
The study mentioned above also directly linked the negative effects of smoking on tattoo removal. Subjects who smoked regularly had a 70% lower rate of removal after 10 sessions compared to their non-smoking counterparts. This lower success rate is most likely related to smoking’s direct effects on wound healing.
Tattoo removal is more effective for individuals with lighter skin (specifically Fitzpatrick type 1 or 2 skin types). Because lighter skin does not significantly absorb laser light, most of the laser energy is focused on the tattoo pigment. In contrast, dark skin siphons a portion of laser light from the tattoo. Also, most laser operators use lower energy settings on patients with darker skin types, as they are more susceptible to unwanted side effects.
If you have darker skin, less powerful lasers are used to avoid scarring or discoloration of the top layer of skin. Using less powerful lasers means it will take more time to penetrate the dermis and remove your tattoo ink. If you have lighter skin, there’s less risk of damage to the epidermis when a high-powered laser is used.
Tattoo removal is harder in areas that have a limited vascular supply and slower healing. Thus, tattoos on the feet, lower legs, or hands require more treatments than tattoos in areas like the chest or back. Because tattoo removal requires the participation of your body’s own immune system, tattoos on the back, face and neck are easiest to remove. These areas of your body experience greater blood flow and proximity to lymph nodes, which means your body will clear out the pigment here more quickly.
Extremities such as your legs, hands and feet are further from your lymph nodes. These areas take longer to heal and may require more sessions before your tattoo is completely removed.
Amount of Ink:
The amount of ink used is another parameter that affects laser tattoo removal. Professional tattoos have a greater density/volume of pigment that resides deeper in the skin. On the other hand, amateur tattooing is usually uneven, superficial, and done with dramatically less ink.
Scarring or tissue damage:
Some people, especially those with dark skin types, are at risk for developing scars or other tissue damage during the tattooing process. Ink pigment that resides under scar tissue is much more difficult to remove and requires more treatments.
Scarring can also be a result of poor tattoo aftercare. If your tattoo never healed properly, the ink could be embedded in scar tissue. It’s more challenging to remove ink from scar tissue than healthy skin.
Layered Tattoos (Cover Ups):
Layered tattoos (which often occur when a patient tries to cover up their initial tattoo with another one) are difficult to remove and require significantly more treatments than singular tattoos. Most tattoo ink is translucent, meaning it is necessary to use darker ink tones to cover previous tattoos. Since the new layer is larger and darker (and layering increases the overall volume and density of ink), full removal can be very difficult.
Choosing the Best Laser Tattoo Removal
Not all laser tattoo removal is the same. The differences lie in the types of laser used, and at which frequency. The most common lasers, called “Q-Switched lasers” can take up to 20 sessions for complete tattoo removal.
Newer, Picosure lasers remove tattoos up to 75% sooner. What’s the difference? The new PiQo4 lasers break tattoo ink into much smaller pieces, allowing them to be more easily cleared from the body. These lasers operate at four different wavelengths, each of which targets a specific tattoo color. The versatility of these newer lasers makes them far more effective for tattoo removal.
How Can I Speed Up My Tattoo Removal?
- For best results, choose a reputable dermatologist or cosmetic surgery center that specializes in tattoo removal.
- Inquire about the type of laser they use. The PiQo4 laser is more effective than traditional tattoo removal lasers.
- Attend all follow up treatment sessions promptly as scheduled by your
- Until your tattoo is completely removed, stay out of the sun. Treatment cannot be performed on burned skin, and tanned skin makes treatment sessions less effective.
- To help your body clear tattoo ink sooner, speed up your metabolism by exercising and eating healthy, whole foods.
- Eat more lean protein to help the skin recover between treatment sessions.
- Stay hydrated to help flush ink particles out of your system.
- Quit smoking and minimize alcohol consumption as both alcohol and cigarette use can slow down the body’s ability to dispose of broken-down ink.
- Follow all aftercare instructions provided by your provider
Read more about speeding up the laser tattoo process here
Almost any tattoo can be completely removed. It’s just a matter of choosing the right dermatologist, using the right equipment, and being patient throughout the process.