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Does tattoo removal work? Will it leave me a scar?

Tattoo removal has steadily risen over the last 20 years.  In fact, according to recent statistics published in the journal Archives of Dermatology, 28% of people with tattoos regret getting inked within 1 year after having it done and as many as 50% of people choose to undergo removal procedures.  Decades ago, most tattoos were removed with surgery or good-old fashioned abrasion (ie:  scrubbing the area with something similar to steel wool).  This inevitably led to scarring and unsatisfactory outcomes.  Modern tattoo removal is accomplished using laser technology, which is designed to specifically target certain color pigments of tattoo ink within the skin.  Since tattoo ink particles are extremely small, a “Q-switched” laser is used.  This innovation in laser technology created very powerful lasers that pulse in nanosecond or picosecond bursts, which turns out to be the most effective way to remove tattoo pigment.  When the laser interacts with the pigment in the skin, heat is created, leading to fragmentation of the ink and eventual clearance from the body, mainly via your lymph nodes.  Tattoos require many laser sessions to have a significant effect and gradual lightening of the tattoo is seen after each treatment.  When performed by board-certified dermatologists, there is very little damage to the surrounding skin with no scarring (this is why checking your physician’s credentials is very important).  Colors other than black or red, tattoo size greater than 4 ½ square inches, high color density, and tattoos on the feet/legs are associated with a decreased clearance rate.  It also turns out that the longer you wait between treatment sessions, the more likely the tattoo will clear (so plan your removal as early as possible).  Ideal timeline is spaced 6-8 weeks between each session. Although controversial amongst dermatologists, fresh tattoos are recommended to be treated as soon as possible because the longer you wait, the more difficult it is to clear.  In terms of results, average clearance rates are about 47% after 10 sessions and 75% after 15 sessions, but, as noted above, this varies widely depending on the specific case.  For example, a black tattoo on the chest would have closer to a 90-95% clearance rate, whereas a green and white tattoo on the calf would have closer to 40%.  A word of caution for smokers:  a recent scientific study concluded that the chances of achieving tattoo removal after 10 sessions decreased by 69.7% in smokers compared to nonsmokers.  In other words, if a non-smoker’s tattoo had a 75% clearance rate, it would drop to 24% if he smoked.  This is mainly due to smoking’s negative influence on the body’s ability to excrete the pigment properly.  Side effects to the laser treatment are minimal and include some slight swelling or discomfort.  In addition, sun protection is very important, both before and after the treatments, as the laser can inadvertently target a suntan and cause permanent skin discoloration.

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