Yes, it hurts
If you’re ever thinking of getting a tattoo, my one piece of advice would be: take a good friend with you. Do not, like me, go alone and think, ‘I don’t really like this tattoo’, when the stencil is on, but decide to have it done anyway because, hell, you’re already there. If you have a friend by your side, you can freely vocalise your thoughts – to which a responsible pal will say, ‘Girl, don’t do it, it’s not worth it’. Unfortunately I did not have this wisdom years ago when I brazenly booked an appointed to get a, *gulp*, Pink Floyd tattoo on my upper arm. And before all the Dazed Beauty x Pink Floyd stans come at me, I’m still a dad rock fan, I just don’t want to show it off all summer.
Anyway, that’s the long and short of how I ended up seeking laser tattoo removal in 2018, desperately hoping to eradicate the dark black lines of two robot arms shaking hands (there’s a Pinterest page dedicated to it… “for men”) off my once beautiful, untouched, porcelain skin. OK, now here’s my second piece of advice: either do a shit load of Googling before you begin the process, or, if you’re based in London, read on for my recommended clinic. I initially visited a place in Soho, which I found pretty ineffective; despite my adamance that they were scamming me into buying more sessions, I’ve since been told that the slowness of the process (and therefore seeming lack of success) was likely due to the type of laser they used. Most clinics use two types of lasers: the more traditional Q-Switched, which typically requires over 10 treatments, or PicoSure’s picosecond laser, which is 20 times faster than its predecessor and tends to remove tattoos more completely in fewer treatments. So, if you’re looking for a quicker fix, you’re best to find a clinic that uses picosecond lasers – if you can’t find the details online, call up and ask.
In April 2020, after 10 treatments at the first clinic, I had my first session at Pulse Light Clinic in Eastcheap, which uses PicoWay, PicoSure, and Q-Switched lasers. Now, as I near the end of my treatment, I’m rounding up everything I’ve learned on my journey – AKA everything you need to know before getting laser tattoo removal.
HOW DOES TATTOO REMOVAL WORK?
The PicoWay and PicoSure lasers fire very short but high-energy pulses of light into the skin – they’re about a thousandth of a millionth of a second long. “The energy from the lights goes into the tissue,” explains Pulse Light Clinic’s senior consultant Barbara Taylor, adding that it doesn’t harm the skin. “It travels through until it hits the tattoo pigment, and then the light is absorbed into the pigment.” Taylor says that the light is so fast that when it’s absorbed, it breaks the large clumps of tattoo pigment that were trapped in your skin into smaller particles. “Now the smaller particles can be absorbed and taken away by your autoimmune system – your macrophage and white blood cells,” she continues. “They come in and carry the small particles of pigment away, and therefore fade down the tattoo.”
CAN TATTOOS BE COMPLETELY REMOVED?
Much to the frustration of everyone researching laser tattoo removal, there’s no easy answer to this one. Many tattoos can be removed almost without a trace, while others have stubborn particles that will never disappear completely. “The ink used for tattoos is generally made from compounds of heavy metals like lead, copper, and manganese, and is pushed deep into the skin via a needle,” says Taylor. “The body reacts to the intrusion by sending white blood cells to engulf the metal particles. Some ink particles that are small enough to be carried by the white blood cells are taken to the liver where they’re processed. The larger ones can’t be carried off by the white blood cells, meaning the tattoo will fade over time but won't disappear – this can vary depending on the tattoo.”
Having been undergoing treatments for just over three years (including a forced seven-month interlude thanks to the pandemic), I’m confident that my tattoo will fade to the point of being basically invisible. I say this because it’s responded well to treatment, so far leaving no scarring or pigmentation (right now, you can still the tattoo and it’s slightly raised). Even if remnants of it do remain, however, I trust they’ll be minimal and barely noticeable. Besides, once you start the process of getting a tattoo removed, you’ll realise that minor lines are nothing compared to the original thing.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?
Truthfully, getting a tattoo removed is a long process – but that shouldn’t put you off. (Warning: don’t use my case as a baseline here. Mine has taken an extraordinary amount of time, thanks to my initial misjudged choice of clinic and, err, a global pandemic.) Taylor says PicoSure clients will typically visit a practitioner every eight weeks for up to eight treatments, which can take around a year and a half – though it can sometimes take longer depending on the result that the client wants. Taylor adds that it won’t take as long for those just looking to get enough of the tattoo removed so they can cover it up with something else.
My key takeaway about removal time is this: the longer you wait between appointments, the more effective the removal will be. Now this may seem counterintuitive; the longer you wait between appointments, the longer it’s going to take, right? Sure – but the tattoo continues to fade even when you’re not having treatments, so if you wait three months (or even more) between sessions, you’ll have a lighter slate when you go back. My tattoo faded most significantly during its seven-month pandemic break.
DOES IT HURT?
Sorry but yes, it hurts a lot. I would describe it, specifically, as “ouchy”. It’s not especially scream-inducingly painful, but it feels exactly like what it is: a laser shooting into your skin really fast. And yes, it hurts more than getting the tattoo done – but, depending on the size of your tattoo, each treatment can take under five minutes. Easy! I implore you not to let the perceived pain of the removal put you off – it is really, really not that bad.
Now, here’s the expert comment. “Although the lasers do heat the ink particles to thousands of degrees, they don’t burn the skin, but they do create shockwaves that vibrate through the skin, causing the upper layer to rise slightly and appear white. This process, called frosting, does hurt, but the effects only last a couple of seconds. You can also experience a short-term rash or some slight bleeding after the treatment.”
After a session, your practitioner will apply a soothing cream – often Bepanthen, which you likely used for the aftercare of the initial tattoo – and wrap the tattoo to keep it clean and away from the sun. As you would expect, it does hurt – it’s often slightly raised and red and basically looks like a burn. And it hurts like a burn. Your practitioner will typically advise you to keep the bandage on for 24 hours, then remove it and apply Bepanthen twice daily until the pain, redness, and/or swelling subsides. Top tip: massage the tattoo between sessions to help blood flow and stimulate the lymph system.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Again, there’s no definitive answer to this. Most clinics charge per session based on the size of the tattoo. At Pulse Light Clinic right now, for example, “very small” tattoos (from one to three centimetres) start from £40 per session, while “extra large” tattoos (21cm upwards) cost £88.40 per treatment. You can find the in-between prices here – but, not to sound too much like the small print of an ad, they might differ over time and on a case-by-case basis. If you’re forcing an answer out of me, you’re looking at somewhere between £300 and £700 for eight sessions – and you may need more than that.
ARE THERE ANY LONG-TERM RISKS?
So far, I haven’t experienced any adverse effects from my tattoo removal, and am astounded by the results – the ink has almost completely faded, I don’t have any scarring, and the aftercare process has been completely stress-free. However, my tattoo is small and was done in black ink, making it easier to remove. Other people might endure a more arduous process. “Because some colours are particularly difficult to remove, you may not be able to get rid of your tattoo completely,” explains Taylor. “Yellow, green, and purple ink require more sessions to fade than black, blue, and red. There’s also a chance that the area where the tattoo has been removed temporarily becomes darker or lighter than the surrounding skin. Permanent scarring is relatively rare, but it does occur in about three per cent of cases.” But, she adds, “tattoo removal can be great for anyone who seriously regrets their ink”.
Find out more about laser tattoo removal at Pulse Light Clinic here.