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Overview of Laser Technology and the Skin

We are asked frequently by patients like you how laser tattoo works. Before we get into the finer details of tattoo removal, it’s helpful to understand that there are many different types of lasers and the specific type used for tattoo removal is categorized as “Q-switched”. Each type of laser has a different effect on the skin, and in the case of tattoo removal lasers, the reason they work is because they use very short bursts of laser light energy (called pulses) and because this light is preferentially absorbed by the ink in the tattoo. This process of the laser light being preferentially absorbed by the tattoo ink is called “selective photothermolysis”.

How Does Tattoo Ink Stay in the Skin?

A tattoo is considered permanent because the ink placed in the dermis (second layer of skin) is placed in such a way that it is difficult for the body to remove it without help. The body has an amazing ability to “absorb” and process small foreign objects such as harmful bacteria, viruses and other foreign bodies by a process known as phagocytosis. Phagocytes are cell particles that surround and destroy these harmful foreign bodies. The challenge for the body in attempting to remove tattoo ink is that the globules (particles) of ink are large enough that they cannot be surrounded and removed by these phagocytes. And that’s where lasers come in.

How Do Lasers Remove Tattoo Ink?

Because the ink particles in a tattoo are too large for the body’s immune system to digest, lasers work to prepare the ink for removal by breaking it into smaller particles. The beauty of q-switched lasers is that their high power and short pulse width (flash) create a burst of energy strong enough to break the tattoo ink into smaller particles. Once the larger ink particles have been broken down into smaller particles, the body can begin to process and remove the ink. And this breakdown and removal is the basis for how tattoos help the body remove tattoo ink.

How Long Does it Take to Completely Remove the Tattoo?

Once a laser treatment is performed, the body goes to work on removing the tiny particles of ink. This process is ongoing until all the ink is gone, so the longer the body has between treatments, generally the more ink that is removed. But because patients that start the tattoo removal process want to finish in a reasonable amount of time, we usually request they return to our office in 6-8 weeks for their next treatment.

Does the Color of the Tattoo Matter?

The color of the tattoo makes a big difference in how easy it is to remove and how long the process takes. Dark colors – which absorb light easily – are the easiest colors to remove. Dark blue and black respond quickest with red being the easiest after the dark colors. Other colors including pink, green, light blue, orange and white that are difficult to remove quickly because these do not absorb light easily. These colors can often take many visits to remove or will require a different type of laser to remove them.

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