About Tattoo Removal
Increasing numbers of teenagers and adults are getting tattoos. Studies in the USA and Australia suggest over 20% of adults have at least one tattoo and that amongst University students around 50% now have tattoos.
Increasing numbers of people who have tattoos are regretting the outcome (tattoo regret) with some estimates as high as 50% of people with tattoos will want them removed at some time.
The reasons for wanting tattoos removed are varied. A common reason is that a tattoo done when younger becomes out of place and not as socially acceptable as one gets older; it may be that the tattoo simply didn’t turn out well and is not what was requested or expected; it may be that an ex partner’s name is no longer wanted; or it may be that someone wants a tattoo to be faded or part of it to be removed so a new tattoo can replace it (tattoo remodelling).
Whatever the reason there is no doubt tattoo removal using laser technology is the most effective option.
The first lasers used for Tattoo removal were lasers such as the Argon laser and Carbon Dioxide laser that delivered a continuous laser beam onto the skin’s surface. Whilst these continuous beam lasers can remove tattoo ink, they cause too much heating of the skin and result in high levels of burning and scarring, and are no longer considered an appropriate option for tattoo removal.
A big advance in laser tattoo removal was the development of lasers that delivered laser energy in short pulses rather than continuously. These lasers can deliver high power laser light to the skin in a fraction of a second (nanosecond). They are called Q-Switch lasers because of the mechanism in the laser that allows this pulsed laser beam to be produced.
There are several types of Q-Switch lasers used for tattoo removal and these lasers vary in the colour (wavelength) of light they produce. The 3 main types of Q-Switch lasers used for tattoo removal are YAG lasers (1064nm and 532nm wavelengths), Ruby lasers (694nm) and Alexandrite lasers (755nm). The wavelength of the laser light determines how well the laser light is attracted to different ink colours ie different colours of laser light are needed to target different colours of tattoo ink.
The latest advance in laser tattoo removal has been the development of the ‘picosecond’ laser. The picosecond laser delivers laser beams in ultra-short bursts, much shorter than with Q-Switch lasers. The advantage of a picosecond laser over Q-Switch lasers, is that the picosecond laser is less reliant on heating the tattoo ink particles, due to the shorter picosecond pulse also creating a pressure wave effect to more effectively shatter the ink particles. The first picosecond laser, released in 2013, is an Alexandrite laser called the PICOSURE. The second picosecond laser, released in 2014, is a YAG laser called the ENLIGHTEN.
The short answer is there is no one best tattoo removal laser that suits all tattoos. The choice of the optimal tattoo removal laser strongly depends on the particular tattoo ink, skin type, risk of scarring and a patient’s budget.
Picosecond Alexandrite lasers have significantly improved the results that can be achieved with the removal of green and blue tattoos and is the treatment of choice for these colours. Red tattoos and thicker black tattoos do not seem to respond as quickly to the picosecond Alexandrite laser but these inks seem to respond better to the picosecond YAG laser. Overall picosecond lasers can be expected to clear most tattoos in about half the time achievable with medical grade Q-Switch lasers. Other advantages of picosecond lasers are that treatments are usually less painful and that post treatment scarring is less frequent due to lower power settings being needed. The drawback with the picosecond technology is that it is much more expensive and not as readily available (not many clinics can afford the large outlay to purchase a picosecond laser). Picosecond lasers cost about 3 times the cost of medical grade Q-Switch lasers and hence picosecond laser treatments tend to cost on average 3 times as much as Q-Switch laser treatments.
Q-Switch YAG lasers are still the commonest lasers used for tattoo removal and remain a very cost effective method of tattoo removal. It is important to realise that not all Q-Switch lasers are the same and not all Tattoo Removal clinics are the same. The premium medical grade Q-Switch laser is the REVLITE system manufactured by the US Company Cynosure. The REVLITE is a Class 4 laser that has significantly more power and is more reliable than many Q-Switch lasers produced in unregulated markets such as China. The REVLITE also has a special dye filter system that allows the laser to deliver 4 wavelength options (1064nm, 532nm, 585nm and 650nm) which gives it versatility to effectively treat a wide range of tattoo colours. The company that manufactures the REVLITE also manufactures a lower powered Q-Switch laser it sells to the beauty salon market called a MEDLITE laser.
In Victoria, tattoo removal is an unregulated industry with no Government controls on what lasers are used, where treatments are performed and who performs the treatments. It is very much a case of ‘buyer beware’ and the type of equipment and the experience and qualifications of the practitioner should always be considered. Any decision on tattoo removal should not be based purely on price.
For achieving realistic expectations in a safe and effective manner, tattoo removal is best undertaken in a medical clinic environment using reputable medical grade laser equipment and performed by experienced University trained laser practitioners. Medical based tattoo removal clinics that have access to a range of tattoo removal lasers are able to individualise treatment and provide the best tattoo removal laser option. Some tattoos, notably multi coloured tattoos, require a combination of different tattoo removal lasers to achieve the best result.
The number of treatments and the cost per treatment need to be considered. As a guide the cost of treating a small tattoo by a medical grade Q-Switch laser starts at $150 + GST per treatment and depending on the tattoo may take 10-20 treatments. Treatment using a picosecond laser starts at $450 + GST per treatment and may take 5-10 treatments.
Some tattoos will clear much more quickly, especially amateur tattoos and certain colours such as green tattoos with the picosecond laser. Patients who only want to fade an old tattoo to cover with a new tattoo will require far fewer treatments than someone who wants all the ink removed. It is difficult to give a precise number of treatments for tattoo removal as there are a number of unknowns such as which ink was used (and there is no regulation on tattoo inks), how much ink was used, how deep the ink was applied and how well a patient’s metabolism will clear the ink.
At the Geelong Laser Medical Centre we offer a free estimate of costs if you email us a picture of your tattoo.