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Tattoo removal

When the petals on your inky daisy begin to wilt, you can erase the dyes that you once thought were permanent. All it takes is the flip of a Q-switched laser.

By Zeel Editorial Staff, Last updated: June 26, 2012

Treatment Basics

Regulatory approval: FDA approved Q-switched lasers have been used for tattoo removal since the early 1990s.

Modern-day tattoo removal is done using a Q-switched laser to break down tattoo dye into small fragments. Once splintered, the dye is carried away by the bloodstream and is eventually eliminated from the body.

Three types of Q-switched lasers are used. They use different wavelengths, since not all wavelengths can destroy all ink colors.

What It's Good For

Lasers can help remove tattoos from any part of the body, including the hands, neck, arms, legs, back, chest, breasts, stomach, buttock, groin, legs, feet and eyes.

  • The Q-switched ruby laser (QSRL) has a wavelength of 694 nm, which targets black and blue ink. The QSRL penetrates the skin one millimeter down, lightening affected tissues. Four to five treatments are typically needed to significantly lessen or remove this shade of ink.
  • The Q-switched neodymium:yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG) has a wavelength of between 532-1064 nm. At higher wavelengths, the Nd:YAG can also blast away black and blue ink, while lower wavelengths can remove reddish tones as well as orange and yellow. The Nd:YAG laser penetrates more deeply into the skin, and has a narrower focus point. This makes it better for darker skin, since the laser is less likely to accidentally target melanin on the skin's surface. The smaller spot point also makes it more precise, so it's a good choice to remove permanent eyeliner and smaller tattoos.
  • The Q-switched alexandrite laser has a wavelength of 755 nm and is typically used to remove green ink. Green is one of the hardest hues to get rid of, since the hue is made up of blue and yellow shades, which are extremely common undertones in skin. (That means that other lasers have a much higher chance of affecting the skin instead of the green ink.) Green ink also takes longer to remove. Total tattoo clearance with the alexandrite laser requires an average of 10 to 11 treatments. (Long story short, don't get green tattoos.)

Many tattoos are multicolored, so that means a variety of lasers must be used. The more colorful the tattoo, the more challenging it is to erase.

Recommended age range: To remove a tattoo, you have to have one in the first place. As of 2006, 36% of Americans age 18-29 and 24% between 18 and 50 had at least one tattoo.

Key benefits of tattoo removal:

  • The Nd:YAG laser is least likely to cause hypopigmentation, or a loss of skin color.
  • The alexandrite laser clears about 50% of tattoos after two sessions, 75% by five sessions, and 90% in five to seven treatments.

Did you know?: There is a tattoo dye designed to be removed easily and completely. The ink is contained in small microcapsules, designed to instantly burst when touched by lasers. Call it a semi-permanent tattoo!

Also, ink tends to break down over time, so it is slightly easier to remove older tattoos.

Find experts who offer tattoo removal near you