Everything you need to know about tattoo removal (including how much it actually hurts)

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06 Nov 2018

When you first had the idea for your tattoo design, you probably never thought you'd be looking to remove it one day.

But circumstances change and if you want to wipe your skin slate completely clean, unfortunately, there's no magic cream or scrub you can use. The best option? Laser tattoo removal.

PSA: Those looking to remove their tattoos before their wedding day, be aware that it's no instant fix, especially for those with coloured tattoos, and it can take up to a year or more to complete your treatment - which relies on your body flushing away the ink - so plan ahead!

How much does tattoo laser removal hurt?

Despite having already endured the pain of getting a tattoo in the first place, this is usually the first question people ask about laser tattoo removal.

The good news? Dr Rekha Tailor, Aesthetic Doctor at says, "it'll be no more painful than the tattoo itself."

"The procedure does come with some degree of pain; the stinging sensation of which could be compared to the flicking of an elastic band against the skin."

Need more comparisons? say the pain is like 'being scratched by cats' but also agree the tattoo hurts more than the removal. The best advice? Take an Ipod and or a book and sit very still.

How many sessions does it take to remove a tattoo?

Just like no tattoo is the same, the time period for tattoo removal will vary from person to person.

"Age of the tattoo, skin tone, size of the tattoo, ink depth, intricacy of design and type of pigment used," says Dr Rekha, are all factors that will contribute to your treatment timeline.

"Unfortunately, tattoo removal can be a frustratingly slow process. It is possible that you may need between 6-20 sessions at intervals of 8-10 weeks."

Leading tattoo removal expert, , says in her experience, older ink is usually easier to remove, but colours can be challenging.

"Generally speaking, the easiest colours to remove are black, brown, dark blue and green," she says. "The most difficult to remove are red, orange, yellow, pale blue."

"It won’t take long for lasers to significantly fade darker inks, however, eradicating them completely will usually take more sessions and a more powerful laser."

So can tattoos be completely removed OR will there always be a trace of ink?

Again, this varies from person to person, but if you're hoping your skin will be exactly the same as it was pre-tattoo – this is unlikely.

"Occasionally people are left with a white shadow of the original tattoo known as ‘ghosting’", says Dr Rekha. "In addition, laser removal is not recommended for darker skins as this can remove the skin’s natural pigment and leave white scarring."

Lorena agrees and says "It's important to establish upfront that tattoo removal is a process that relies on the body's ability to eliminate ink from the skin."

"It's not unusual for the body to take over a year to completely eliminate ink."

For the best results possible, Lorena says to allow the skin enough time to heal between treatments and the body's immune system to flush away ink.

"Stacking the treatments too close together can cause damage and permanent side effects to the skin and doesn't allow the body enough time to remove the ink that was shattered at the most recent session", she says. "For ideal results, I recommend waiting three months between treatments."

What's the post-care like?

Crusting and scabbing is common post-laser tattoo removal and the area can even look darker before it heals.

It's for this reason that Lorena says to make sure it isn’t disturbed or irritated.

"Never pick or remove the skin from a scab as this could cause unnecessary scarring. Crusting will last for as long as your skin needs to protect the area, so my advice is, be patient with this step."

Dr Rekha says after each appointment, an anti-bacterial cream will be applied to the area. And for 1-2 weeks after each session, she recommends to:

  1. Avoid UV exposure as the skin will become more photosensitive. If you do go out in the sun, then ideally completely cover the area that is being treated. If you can’t avoid sun exposure completely then ensure the treated area is protected with a broad-spectrum SPF 50 or more sun cream.
  2. Avoid strenuous exercise as this can encourage inflammation and make the area more symptomatic (itching, swelling, etc).
  3. Avoid drinking alcohol as this can slow down the fading process as it can hinder the capability of your liver and kidneys to flush out ink particles from the body.

Is there an option for non-laser tattoo removal?

If the idea of laser has you packing it, or you'd just rather not, Lorena does have an alternative: a saline/glycolic acid treatment.

However, this is more of a fading treatment than removal. Lorena says, "It does not substitute the need for lasers at some stage of the removal process."

And it's actually far more aggressive than lasers, as involves opening the skin to get to the implanted pigment, whereas laser does not touch the epidermis.

The post-care is also a little trickier as "you will need to keep the area dry and allow the scab to fall off on its own", says Lorena. "This poses a challenge when washing and showering."

It's best to have a consultation to find out whether this method would work for you.