Tattoos have become incredibly popular in the last 30 years. They’re no longer just for bikers and sailors — they’re for everyone. Many people have memorial pictures or inspirational phrases tattooed on themselves.
But some people regret having a tattoo of their boyfriend or girlfriend’s name after they break up. Others become embarrassed years later when that hot new tattoo trend becomes tacky and dated (hello tribal armbands and lower-back tattoos). So it’s no surprise that tattoo removal has also become very popular.
There are basically eight ways to get rid of a problematic tattoo. Some are much more successful than others. Some are more painful than getting the tattoo in the first place. And some are just plain dangerous or a waste of time. Here are the eight methods of tattoo removal:
- Removal creams
- Chemical peels
- Surgical excision
- Home laser treatment
- Professional laser treatment
In this article, we discuss each form of tattoo removal and their advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost, pain, and effectiveness.
Coverups are just that: covering the old tattoo with a new one by reworking the design. Some tattoo artists specialize in this, as it’s tricky to make the old tattoo not show through. This is one of the least expensive methods of correction. Tattoo artists charge about $50-$125 per hour. Also, getting a coverup hurts no more than getting the original tattoo did, and it has about the same amount of healing time.
The downsides are, of course, that there is no guarantee you will like the coverup tattoo more than the original years down the line. Plus, you will likely need to get a tattoo larger than the original one in order to properly cover it up. And if the original has huge blocks of dark ink it can be hard to fix or hide. So, depending on your tattoo, a coverup might not be an option for you.
Tattoo removal cream is touted as a painless tattoo removal method, but it is problematic. It is basically a skin bleaching agent, which can damage the skin long-term since it’s being applied on the top of the dermis (skin layer). All it’s doing is making the tattoo lighter by comparison, but it’s not actually removing anything… since the chemicals in the cream don’t penetrate down to the layer where the ink is.
However, this is one of the cheaper options on the list. Tattoo removal cream can run anywhere from $15 to upwards of $100. The key is to read reviews and find a brand that actually works.
There are two types of chemical peels for tattoo removal. One is called trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and it is available over-the-counter. Similar to removal creams, this mild acid works by gradually fading the tattoo. TCA peels away the top layer of the skin, but will not reach the deep layers where the ink resides. And it can take three months to fade a tattoo using TCA. Still, this is a cheaper option at $40-$60 dollars.
A stronger chemical peel treatment using phenol will work more quickly. But it needs to be applied by a dermatologist, will be more expensive, and will hurt more because it penetrates the middle layers of the skin. There is also greater risk of scarring.
Some tattoo removal methods call for injecting a chemical, or a saline solution, into the skin layer where the ink resides. This causes the skin to react like a tattoo, bringing the ink up to the surface along with the scarring.
But injections takes many treatments to get any results and do not entirely remove the tattoo. At best, injections can lighten enough of the tattoo that you can use makeup to disguise the rest. Another downside is the cost: each session runs from $200-$500. Also, this can be a very painful method to endure.
Since “derm” means skin and “abrasion” means scrape, you can guess what this process entails. Dermabrasion is a surgical procedure where a doctor removes the first few layers of skin to encourage your natural healing process to force the tattoo ink upwards. Dermabrasion is not recommended for tattoo removal on the face, neck, or hands. These skin layers are much too thin.
Dermabrasion is one of the more expensive tattoo removal options, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars. Also, healing time can take up to three weeks. And the treated skin will remain pink for up to 12 weeks. Lastly, don’t plan on getting dermabrasion unless you are okay with avoiding the sun for up to six months. Sunlight can lead to excessive scarring, and you will be expected to apply sunscreen whenever you go outside.
Home Laser Treatment
Does laser tattoo removal work? Yes and no. For example, there are small home laser units being sold now, but these are about as effective as the creams — in other words, not very effective at all. The laser pulses are just too weak to reach the ink and break it up. The result will be lighter tattoos, but there is a risk of redness, swelling, and scarring if the products are not used correctly.
However, home laser treatment is one of the cheaper options. These products, often marketed as laser pens, run around $60. Laser tattoo removal works, but is only truly effective when done with professional equipment in a professional setting.
Professional Laser Treatment
Professional laser treatment is probably the best tattoo removal method overall, taking into account cost and the amount of pain during the treatment and healing process. The laser light pulses break up the ink, which allows the skin to bring it up to the surface. Your skin naturally works its way from the inside out, growing new skin underneath and sloughing off dead skin flakes on the outside.
It can take several treatments to get results, so there’s a definite expense to the procedure. Each session will run $200-$500. But by far, professional laser treatment gets the best results and causes the least problems afterward. There may be some ink particles that remain behind, but the majority of the ink will dissipate.
This is the last resort of treatments. It’s literally surgery, and can only be performed on small tattoos. A surgeon cuts away the skin with a scalpel and stitches the wound closed. The procedure can leave a scar, but it will 100% remove the tattoo.
Surgical excision sounds extreme, but can be a good option for those with small tattoos. The cost runs between $150 and $350.
Remember, no matter which form of tattoo removal you choose, the process can be time-consuming, costly, and/or painful to get effective results. Think long and hard about the tattoo you choose before you get it.