Tattoos are no longer the taboo, rebel-marking symbols of the past, but have become more and more common across the population. While each person’s reason for getting a tattoo varies between personal, cultural, and other influences, a lot more people have, and are getting more tattoos. With more tattoos comes more tattoo regret, and the decision to have them covered or removed.
The most common way to have a tattoo removed is through laser surgery; however before jumping into the doctor’s chair, there are several things one needs to consider. No tattoo removal is fully guaranteed and how well it can be removed depends on the tattoo’s location, size, colour, detail, and age (older tattoos are easier to remove). More than 1 treatment will be needed and there are potential side effects including; scarring, hyperpigmentation (darkening or lightening of the skin), burns, and/or changes in the texture of the skin.
It is highly recommended to seek a licensed medical specialist or cosmetic surgeon for guidance before undertaking any tattoo removal procedure.
Surgical laser removal is by far the most successful and safest way to currently remove a tattoo, with minimal detriment. It works by using a laser (high-intensity light beam) to break up the pigment colours in the ink. There are different lasers that are used for the separate colour spectra for each pigment, with black ink being the most absorbent of the laser’s wavelengths. Although laser removal is the safest way to currently remove a tattoo, there are some modern advances in the technology that have made the process not only safer, but also more effective.
There are two main types of lasers used for tattoo removal, Nanosecond (Q-Switch) and Picosecond, with the latter only having been in use for about the last 6 years or so. Nanosecond lasers use heat to break up the colour pigment while Picosecond lasers use pressure and are about 100x faster. They work on the same principle, yet with different technologies (pressure & heat) being used. However, since Picosecond lasers are faster, that also means the laser is on the skin for a shorter period of time and lessens the amount of treatments needed. A new Picosecond laser called Pico-Way and developed by Syneron Candela cuts the amount of treatments needed by at least 50% and works more effectively at breaking up blue and green ink pigments; well-known hard-to-remove colours.
Developments in laser technology have addressed some of the safety concerns regarding the tattoo removal process, mainly with the light transmission of the laser. More specifically, the potential eye damage to both the doctor and patient due to the distance of the laser from the skin. With the distance required for safety, it becomes difficult to ensure that the selected area (i.e. the tattoo) is the only area absorbing the laser’s light.
In early 2017, a technique called Sonoillumination was developed to help improve laser transmission and to make the removal more accurately pinpointed. It works by using ultrasonic pulsation with the clinical laser as a system to actively change the skin tissue throughout the procedure. This system then transmits the laser light to the skin tissue through direct contact, rather than from a distance. For doctors, this means a safer and potentially more controllable option, and a potentially lower number of treatments needed for the patient.
These recent updates in laser surgery show that although the original technology was overall successful for tattoo removal, there is always room for improvement. Not only in safety for both doctor and patient, but also in the efficiency of the entire removal process.
As tattoos remain a popular trend, there are sure to be even more advances to their removal, as well as in the use of less-toxic inks, and in government health regulations of the tattoo inking and removal industries.