Remember Johnny Depp’s “Winona Forever” tattoo? How about Angelina Jolie’s “Billy Bob”? It took more than just Softsoap and a marker to turn them into “Wino Forever” and map coordinates, respectively, after their celeb owners fell out of love with their tattoos’ namesakes. So what are the options if you change your mind once you’ve already been inked?
We spoke to laser tattoo removal specialist Dr. Roy Geronemus, Director of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York to find out the best ways of getting rid of them once and for all.
The best way to zap an unwanted tattoo, according to Geronemus, is laser removal. In fact, most professionals almost never recommend anything else. So forget about ineffective or outdated methods like creams (no matter how many times you use them to dissolve a tattoo, they won’t); excision (removing the whole tattoo as well as the skin beneath it; it leaves prominent scars, not to mention the agony factor); and dermabrasion (removing layers of skin in a process similar to sanding; it’s just not as effective as laser removal and can damage skin).
With laser tattoo removal, the laser beams—short, intense bursts of light—break up the tattoo ink both on the outer skin and under it. After that, says Geronemus, “Some of the ink is eliminated externally; [the rest] is carried away by cells in the body.”
Although laser tattoo removal has a terrific success rate—Geronemus said about 90 percent of tattoos can be removed—he cautions that sometimes it “just isn’t possible to remove them completely.” What raises the odds against a successful removal? Among the biggest factors: the age of the tattoo and the color of the ink. “Older tattoos come out faster,” Geronemus says. Surprisingly, red ink and black ink are easily removed because of the amount of light they can absorb, thus allowing the laser to break them up more extensively. Greens and yellows take more time.
Skin color is also a factor; removal works best on lighter-skinned people since the lasers work by differentiating between the colors of the tattoo and the color of the skin. If there isn’t that much difference, it’s harder to target the tattoo. (And some tattoos shouldn’t be removed at all—Geronemus doesn’t recommend removing cosmetic tattoos, such as permanent eyeliner or tattoos used in breast reconstruction, because they’re in very delicate areas.) As for the risks, Geronemus says there’s a chance of scarring or losing your natural skin pigment, especially if you’re darker-skinned.
Treatment costs vary from region to region, but according to tattooremoval.net, an informational site for consumers, the average national cost is $411.75 per treatment. An average of five treatments required, with a few weeks between each. (However, Geronemus says that some tattoos can be removed in one to two sessions.)
Although the removal process isn’t nearly as painful as getting the tattoo in the first place, even patients who get local anesthesia usually experience discomfort similar to having a rubber band snapped against an arm.
All in all, we’re lucky that there’s a way to remove some truly regrettable tattoos that don’t look nearly as good as they did when we were younger and more reckless. But we’re even luckier if we can remember to carefully consider a tattoo before we get it, keeping in mind that the marks are meant to last a lifetime—and our relationship probably won’t.