Laser Technology is Making Tattoo Removal Easier Than Ever

Thanks to recent advances, the tattoo removal business has quadrupled in the last decade

© Garo/Phanie/Phanie Sarl/Corbis

There are few places where lawyers, ex-gang members, stay-at-home moms, and rebellious teens converge. The tattoo removal office where I work as a receptionist is one of them.

I check patients in and answer questions from people inquiring about our services. A man tells me he’s wanted to get rid of a homemade tattoo that says “tattoo” in chicken-scratch writing. The first thing I say is, “It doesn’t come off like it goes on.” Tattoo removal is a long, multi-stage process.

But technology is rapidly changing this reality, and upending the industry. If you wanted tattoos removed five years ago, it would have meant many painful, expensive treatments—and gambling on the appearance of your skin afterward. Now, laser technology has advanced to where the treatments are more comfortable and safe, and the results are more predictable. As a result, more people with tattoo regret are doing something about it; in the last decade, the tattoo removal industry has grown 440 percent.

These advances have brought new demands and costs to those who operate removal technology. And they've also opened new doors for people to work in the industry, including me.

A week after replying to a job post on my university’s web site, I was at the front desk of a tattoo removal business near downtown Phoenix learning the ropes. After seeing many bad tattoos, I’ve withstood peer pressure to get one myself, despite the fact that I’m a member of the most inked generation in history, and from the heavily tattooed state of Arizona.

I’ve only been here for just over a year, but the technology changes so fast that I’ve been witness to the never-ending scramble to keep up.

Of all of the methods available to remove or alter a tattoo (including lightening creams, excision, plastic surgery, and microdermabrasion), laser tattoo removal is becoming the most popular and effective. Why? Think of the tattoo ink sitting in the skin like a boulder. A tattoo removal laser breaks up that boulder into pieces small enough for your body to rid itself of them. The body does this by absorbing the pieces into the blood, then passing them through the liver and out along with other waste.

Being hit with the laser feels like having hot bacon grease splashed on you while being simultaneously snapped with a thick rubber band.  (I know because I had sunspots removed with the same laser.) To ease the pain, laser technicians apply topical numbing, which is usually not very effective. At our office, we have doctors who are accredited to inject lidocaine, a local anesthetic–like the kind you get at the dentist’s office–to make treatments more bearable.

The crucial number in tattoo removal is the number of treatments it takes to get rid of a tattoo. Every tattoo is different. The color of ink, for instance, plays a big role in determining how many treatments someone needs; black and red are easiest to remove. The type of laser used Is another factor. As lasers advance, the number of treatments drops.

Last December, our office purchased the newest laser on the market: the PicoWay. Its parent laser, the PicoSure, debuted what is called “picosecond technology,” firing laser pulses at a trillionth of a second—a “picosecond.” This broke tattoo ink up into even smaller pieces than was possible before, making it easier for your body to process the tattoo. But the PicoSure also had a higher propensity to scar, and couldn’t be used on certain skin types. The PicoWay resolved these problems, making laser tattoo removal possible for many more people.

When the new laser finally arrived in March, our office changed profoundly. We cut the estimated amount of treatments in half, which changed the length of the removal process from a year to about six months. In a few cases, patients saw their tattoo clear 50 percent or more just from the first treatment.

But the technological advance also created new pressures. One of our biggest fears is that the shorter amount of time to remove a tattoo will lead to a shortage of patients. So far, that hasn’t been the case; more people are removing their tattoos than ever before. We’ve done research, and found that many people have wanted to remove tattoos but hadn’t acted because they didn’t know enough about the process, or what they knew was outdated.  

Further disruption is coming. Laser manufacturers are already working on the next step, a “femtosecond” tattoo-removal laser that would split pulses even shorter—only one quadrillionth of a second between zaps.

In the near future, tattoos might in fact come off as easily as they go on. 

Stephanie Holland, a junior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is a sustainability journalism fellow at Zócalo Public Square.

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