How does laser tattoo removal work? Tattoo removal works by blasting ink molecules out of your body. As you probably know, ink is made from the same stuff as the lead in a mechanical pencil or felt marker. It’s organic pigment mixed with fat and water. When pigments are tattooed into the skin at high speed (as opposed to injected), they tend to be deposited about 3mm below the surface.
The intense pulsed light energy penetrates the top layer of skin, carrying heat along with it. The heat then breaks up ink molecules absorbed back into your bloodstream and filtered through the liver and kidney just like other foreign invaders before eventually being exhaled through the lungs.
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This tattoo removal process is not without risk, though. Because light energy at high power can give you a very nasty burn, particularly in areas that have lots of melanin (like around the eyes), other risks are rarer but include scarring and hyper-pigmentation–change in skin color that is permanent.
One way to avoid these side effects is to use the new picosecond lasers instead of the older nanosecond lasers. Picoseconds are one trillionth of a second vs. nanoseconds which are one billionth of a second, so picos are very fast – much less painful because they don’t cause as much heat build-up in tissue before breaking apart ink molecules. Another technique is Q switched lasers which are yet faster at nanosecond speed.
The reasons Picos and q-switched aren’t used everywhere, they have a high initial cost, require highly trained technicians to operate correctly, and they only work on specific colors – requiring more treatments for darker shades. That said, because of their speed and power, they break up ink particles more effectively than the older, longer pulsed Nanos.
It becomes clear it would be advantageous to have a method to remove tattoo pigment that doesn’t rely on breaking apart molecules with heat which is slower and less efficient, especially when using newer pulsed laser technology.
A tattoo removal session using phage display technology is an innovative new approach. It has been discovered that some types of bacteriophages (aka bacteria eaters) specifically target and destroy pigmented cells. The principle is similar to how bee venom kills melanin-producing cells in the skin, resulting in fading dark areas or spots over time.
A modified version was developed which only targets tattoo pigment by genetically engineering phage particles to express an enzyme called tyrosinase around their exterior surface area. When the light at a designated laser wavelength strikes the phage particles, it causes them to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS)–kind of like bleach on steroids causing selective destruction of organic molecules containing carbon, including tattoo ink pigments.
The advantages are many- it’s non-thermal, so there’s no risk for burns, fewer side effects, works on darker colors, and does not need multiple treatments to achieve desired results. Phage tattoo removal was developed by scientists at the St Georges University of London in conjunction with biotech company Micreos based in the Netherlands.
Phage technology is promising for antibacterial applications, including cleaning up soil polluted with crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Besides their ability to clean up toxins, phages are uniquely suited to this kind of bioremediation because they only attack bacteria, leaving humans and other organisms safe. Additionally, phages are very specific about which types of bacteria they kill–meaning that, unlike antibiotics, they don’t produce resistant strains or abnormal populations of commensal flora (the good bugs you want to keep).
As a bonus to those who don’t mind getting tattooed, phages may offer a new non-thermal alternative for removing unwanted ink! Keep your eyes peeled for future developments.
Brian Stech’s articles on BreakingScience.com cover topics ranging from life sciences and history to energy science and technology. He holds degrees in biology and chemistry as well as physics and math. While he loves all things science, Brian enjoys learning about anything that impacts society in a meaningful way, whether through improving technologies or influencing human behavior, and sharing its wonders with others via a new medium. He currently lives in the SF Bay Area and welcomes a diverse readership.
How effective is laser tattoo removal?
Laser tattoo removal works by targeting the ink of a tattoo with a specific wavelength of light absorbed by the pigment. The heat from the light denatures the pigment molecules, which are gradually eliminated from the body as waste through normal immune and lymphatic cleaning processes.
This process must be repeated multiple times over months to years to effectively break down enough of the targeted ink to be removed entirely eventually. During this process, some natural fading will occur on its own simply due to the nature of ink’s ability to fade over time on its own. Ink can sometimes appear worse after treatment because fresh red ink has been broken up into smaller particles hiding under larger pieces of unbroken ink before treatment. This can give the feeling of more ink being present even though a more significant percentage has reduced the total amount.
The effectiveness of laser tattoo removal is dependent on various factors such as:
- Color, depth, scarring, and location of the tattoo.
- Patient characteristics such as age and skin type.
- Health conditions such as sunburns, high blood pressure, or diabetes.
- Lifestyle habits such as smoking.
- The number of sessions performed to remove the tattoo.
How painful is laser tattoo removal?
Laser tattoo removal is not usually excruciating. The uncomfortable feeling is more of a heating sensation than actual pain. This pulsating laser therapy beam penetrates deep into the skin, targeting pigment beneath it.
The laser beam passes through the top layers of skin during treatment until it reaches the target area, where ink particles are trapped in hair follicles or pores. Once penetrated by the laser light, energy from these lasers directly breaks up tattoo pigments with minor damage to surrounding tissue because of its photo-selective properties.
Treatment sessions are typically separated at intervals of 3 – 6 weeks depending on how profoundly colored or dark your tattoo was initially, color(s) used, and location(s).
How many laser treatments will it take to remove a tattoo?
On average, patients require a total of eight to ten Yag laser sessions to achieve a successful tattoo removal. It must be noted that tattoo removal is never 100% effective, so the number of treatments may vary from person to person.
For example, individuals with light skin color and dark ink colors may need additional sessions for complete results compared to people with darker skin tones. In cases where the tattoo was initially very deep or large, more than one treatment may be required.
It is also necessary for patients who have received laser tattoo removal at least once before to allow their bodies time to heal between treatments by not re-inking the same area until cleared by a physician or medical tattoo specialist. This will ensure that your body reacts better to the laser removal session, which means faster healing, minor discomfort, and more efficient results with fewer treatments required.
The number of sessions needed is also affected by the age of the tattoo being treated. Older cosmetic tattoos may have larger ink particles, so they require more time to be removed entirely. Younger tattoos are generally easier to remove because there are fewer layers of pigment for treatment lasers to target.
How long after laser removal does a tattoo fade?
In most cases, if a tattoo is successfully removed with laser treatments, it will fade over approximately 6-18 months. Although the different lasers can be effective in removal, not all lasers are equally strong and may need to be used together to allow adequate treatment time. In other words, a more robust laser may have to be used initially during the treatment session.
Then a follow-up procedure may be required later on using a less powerful but more suitable laser for that particular tattoo ink color. Since every individual has a custom-designed tattoo ink, increasing or decreasing power can vary from person to person.
Is there any way to stop scarring from occurring after laser surgery?
Yes! New technology allows patients who are undergoing laser surgery to help prevent the risk of scarring. Laser tattoo removal companies are now selling a product that you can apply directly after your procedure to reduce your chance of unwanted scars or side effects. This topical healing lotion is made with all-natural ingredients and contains vitamins C, E, D & B5, which have been clinically proven to heal skin faster while reducing inflammation.
How much does it cost for laser tattoo removal?
Laser tattoo removal works by directing concentrated laser energy at the pigment in the tattoo. This “selectively targets” the color of the ink that has been deposited into the skin without damaging or changing surrounding skin tissue.
Once targeted, the pigment absorbs the laser light and breaks down into smaller components that can then be transported away from where they originated. The body eventually flushes out these degraded pigments as part of its normal processes. Although this procedure is considered safe (when performed correctly), some adverse effects can occur- including changes in skin sensitivity around the treated area(s).
Generally speaking, darker-colored professional tattoos will respond more favorably to treatment than lighter ones. Sometimes multiple treatments are required, but each session yields further improvement until reaching desired results.
Most of the cost is for the initial session, as it can take multiple removal treatments to remove a tattoo. If you choose to have your larger tattoos removed via laser treatment, then two methods may be used: Q-switch and non-Q-switched lasers. Many other factors go into how much a tattoo will cost, so contact us today for more information.
Laser tattoo removal treatment is typically more expensive than other methods of tattoo removal. The cost can range from $50 to $500 or more, depending on the size and color of the unwanted tattoos. Prices also vary based on whether a practitioner owns their laser and how many lasers are available for treatment.
Multiple treatments generally take one year, but many patients will need touch-ups after six months if their lifestyle doesn’t change and they maintain proper health and use sunscreen and other protective measures. A scar resulting from the healing process is typically permanent. Skin type, ink quality, color(s), size, location on the body all affect postoperative healing time.
Do tattoo removal lasers leave scars?
No. The laser passes through the top layer of skin to break up tattoo pigment, but it does not reach the lower layers where scars are formed. Removing a tattoo leaves microscopic wounds that heal quickly without scarring.
That being said, there is no way to thoroughly remove all traces of your tattoo due to the black ink in the deeper layers. So while you will be able to see all or most of your former artwork in plain sight, there may still be excellent lines visible in certain lights if you search for them.
Tattoo removal may not leave much in terms of scarring, but it can cause unwanted effects like puffiness and redness after treatment, which usually resolve within one week. It would help if you avoided sun exposure before and between treatments, as the skin will be more sensitive to UV rays. If you have a history of keloid scarring, talk to your doctor before getting a tattoo removed.
The first thing that the laser does is break up the pigment into tiny particles, which are then taken away by macrophages. For this process to happen within an acceptable time frame to not damage surrounding tissues requires a high amount of energy delivered over a brief period.
This is provided by using a Q-Switched laser, where extremely short pulses of laser light target specific colors in the tattoo ink. As you know from school science experiments, shorter wavelengths carry higher amounts of energy than longer wavelengths.
So, as you can imagine, as the tattoo is exposed to a very high energy intensity over a short period, the ink pigment heats up and breaks down into smaller fragments.
It’s important to note that this process causes significant pain, so, fortunately, there are now anesthetics that will numb the area enough to allow for a comfortable treatment. However, this does not mean that you should not expect some discomfort during or immediately after treatment.
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