Mayo Clinic Health Library

Tattoo removal

Updated: 03-10-2012

Definition

Tattoo ink is placed beneath the top layer of skin. That makes tattoo removal more complicated — and expensive — than the original tattoo application. If you're no longer satisfied with your tattoo, however, tattoo removal might be possible.

Common procedures for tattoo removal include:

  • Laser surgery
  • Dermabrasion
  • Surgical removal

If you're interested in tattoo removal, consult your dermatologist about the options. Don't attempt tattoo removal on your own. Do-it-yourself tattoo removal creams and other home treatments aren't likely to be effective and can cause skin irritation or other reactions.

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Why it's done

You might consider tattoo removal if you regret a tattoo or you're unhappy with the appearance of your tattoo. Perhaps the tattoo has faded or blurred, or you decide that the tattoo doesn't fit your current image. Tattoo removal might also be important if you develop an allergic reaction to the tattoo or other complications.

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Risks

Scarring is likely after most types of tattoo removal. Infection or skin discoloration is possible as well.

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How you prepare

If you're considering tattoo removal, consult your dermatologist. He or she can explain the options for tattoo removal and help you choose the method that's most likely to be effective for your tattoo. For example, some tattoo inks are more responsive to laser treatment than are others. Likewise, some small tattoos might be good candidates for surgical removal, while others are simply too large to remove with a scalpel.

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What you can expect

Tattoo removal is often done as an outpatient procedure with local anesthesia. Common techniques for tattoo removal include laser surgery, dermabrasion and surgical removal.

Laser surgery
Q-switched lasers — which release energy in a single, powerful pulse — are often the treatment of choice for tattoo removal. Before laser treatment, the skin is numbed with an injection of a local anesthetic. Then a powerful pulse of energy is applied to the tattoo to heat and shatter the tattoo ink. Multicolored tattoos might need treatment with various lasers and different wavelengths. After the procedure, you might notice swelling and possibly blistering or bleeding. Antibacterial ointment can help promote healing. You'll likely need repeated sessions to lighten the tattoo, and it might not be possible to completely erase the tattoo.

Dermabrasion
During dermabrasion, the tattooed area is typically chilled until numb. Then the tattooed skin is sanded down to deeper levels with a high-speed rotary device that has an abrasive wheel or brush. This allows the tattoo ink to leach out of the skin. The affected area might feel sore and raw for up to 10 days after the procedure. During this time, it's important to treat the affected area gently. You might need to use antibacterial ointment and cover the affected area with special bandages. Like laser surgery, dermabrasion might not completely erase the tattoo.

Surgical removal
During surgical removal, the skin is numbed with an injection of a local anesthetic. The tattoo is removed with a scalpel, and the edges of skin are stitched back together. After the procedure, antibacterial ointment can help promote healing. Surgical tattoo removal is effective — but it leaves a scar and might be practical only for small tattoos.

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Results

Tattoos are meant to be permanent, and complete tattoo removal is difficult. Some degree of scarring or skin color variation is likely to remain, regardless of the specific method of tattoo removal.

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