People get tattoos for many reasons – these could be cultural, personal, a decision made on a whim, or simply because they like a design. With tattoos becoming more mainstream and so many tattoo parlours offering tattoo services, tattooing has been growing in popularity.
Just as the many reasons people get tattoos, there are just as many reasons to why people may want to have them removed. These reasons might include regret, poor workmanship, fading tattoos, or even due to work requirements. Of course, although tattoos are permanent, this is only to an extent. They can be removed but whether complete removal is possible, it very much depends on the tattoo.
How can we remove tattoos?
Various techniques have been employed to remove tattoos over the years. These include tattooing the tattoo with skin coloured tattoo, also called a cover-up tattoo, surgical excision, and laser removal. Generally, experts agree that laser removal is probably the most successful way to remove tattoos.
Today, laser tattoo removal is generally done using either the Q-switched laser or the newer Picolaser. These lasers send out energy in one strong pulse and the energy subsequently shatters the ink inside your skin to dissolve it. There is also a slight difference in the way Q-switched laser and picolaser work on the skin. With Q-switched lasers, the pulse of energy from the laser heats up the ink in your skin, causing it to shatter (photothermal effect). With the newer picolasers, instead of relying on heat energy, picosecond lasers deliver the energy so rapidly (in trillionths of a second) that the tiny pigment particles in the tattoo ink vibrate and shatter without burning surrounding tissue. This gives higher efficacy and quicker clearance, as well as a safer treatment due to reduced damage to normal skin structures.
Which tattoos are best to remove?
With tattoos, the older they are, the easier they are to remove. Also, amateur “stick and poke” tattoos are more easily removed. The ease of removal also depends on the colours. Typically, dark colours such as black, dark blue, green and brown are easy to remove. Colourful tattoos are more difficult to remove, as they typically require treatment with different lasers and wavelengths to be effective. Also, the closer the colour of the tattoo is to your skin, the more difficult it becomes to have it removed.
The best candidates for laser tattoo removal are usually those with lighter skin but with dark coloured tattoos. Due to the risk of side effects, people with darker skin, pre-existing skin conditions such as keloid, eczema may find removal more complicated.
What’s laser tattoo removal like?
In Singapore, laser tattoo removal can generally be done with a dermatologist or at an aesthetic clinic. Numbing cream is usually applied to numb the area of tattooed skin. Following this, the laser is applied onto the pigmented parts of the skin. Treatment typically feels like someone snapping a rubber band onto your skin, followed by a hot and stingy sensation in the treated area. Following treatment, the skin may bleed, blister and swell. It is important that after care such as applying an antibacterial ointment, regular change of wound dressing and avoiding sun and outdoor activities are followed carefully. The process is repeated over multiple sessions, usually in 6 to 8-weekly intervals. This will continue until you are happy with the extent to which your tattoo has faded.
Are there risks with laser tattoo removal?
Risks were higher with the older Q-switched laser. Possible risks included scarring, developing permanent white spots in the area of treatment and darkening of skin in the surrounding area. The possibility of these happening have decreased with the newer picolasers but it still is not zero. To reduce risk of scarring, do not pick at the area until it heals. Try to stay out of the sun. Follow your doctor’s instructions and recommendations.
What if laser is not able to remove the tattoo completely?
If laser is not able to remove the tattoo, then the only surefire method of completely removing the tattoo is to undergo a surgical removal. This is also called an excision tattoo removal. It involves cutting off tattooed skin and stitching the remaining skin back together. This will leave a scar and is usually preferred for small tattoos.
Tattoos are a common yet permanent body decoration. It is important to consider carefully before tattooing in the first place, as removal of the tattoo is a much longer and arduous journey than having the tattoo itself. Of course, for people who no longer want a tattoo, there are different ways of removing it.
Article contributed by Dr Kwan Yuan Dong.
Dr Kwan is the aesthetic doctor at S Aesthetic Clinic, obtained his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh before spending a number of years practising a wide range of specialities in London. His areas of practice include general surgery, breast surgery, urology and primary care amongst others. He also pursued a Masters Degree in Surgical Sciences during his time in London. With his holistic approach, Dr Kwan hopes to help patients improve their quality of life and enhance their physical wellbeing.