It’s never been easier to find a good tattoo artist, whether you want a small tattoo of a song lyric or a massive motorcycle-riding devil chugging whiskey on your back. However, it’s also never been easier to find bad artists, the kind who bought a machine online and now claims to be a professional on Instagram. Sometimes, you’re just unlucky.
But whether you got an ugly tat from an amateur, the name of an ex, or maybe a Grateful Dead bear in a regrettable act of teenage rebellion, worry not: Tattoo removal in 2017 is really, really good.
How Laser Removal Works
The most common process is laser removal, a simple method that makes ingenious use of your body’s natural machinery. A technician uses a laser to break up the pigment particles beneath the skin. Then, your lymphatic system — which shuttles away waste and toxins from the organs — carries them away from the skin to be excreted. Most people need between four and ten laser sessions to break up their tattoo, but it really depends on the ink pigments used. At the end of the last session, your tattoo will be faded away without leaving much of a mark on your skin.
How Lasers Break Up Ink
Fortunately, when we say lasers, we’re not talking about Star Wars pew pew pew blasters or anything close to modern Lockheed Martin war machines. Lasers are intense beams of monochromatic light (the term stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), and the ones that tattoo removal specialists use are individually matched to specific pigments of tattoo ink.
Each tattoo ink pigment reflects a specific wavelength of light, which is the color we see. The laser a technician uses to break those particles needs to match the wavelength of light the particles absorb. When a laser of the right wavelength strikes the pigment, the high amount of energy contained in the light beam vibrates the particles until they break apart into smaller particles.
This process, when repeated with several lasers for each color of ink, will eventually break up the ink particles enough that a tattoo totally fades away. You can also just get a tattoo faded a little bit until it’s light enough to tattoo over. Typically, the sessions happen about six weeks apart from one another so the skin can heal in the intervening time.
The Deal With Different Pigments
As Inverse previously reported, different pigments take different amounts of time to handle properly:
The common black ink also happens to be the easiest to remove, requiring about five or six sessions. Greens and blues, however, could take as many as 10. The lasers actually operate at different wavelengths to fade the different colors. Matt Russo, founder of InkAway Laser Tattoo Removal, said a Class 4 laser operating on a 1064 wavelength is the most common, since that’s the one that treats basic black. A 532 wavelength will sort out your oranges and reds, while you need a 694 wavelength to get at the tougher green/blue/purple spectrum.
How Much It Hurts
Yes, the lasers do damage the skin it passes through, but not in any serious or significant way. The process is typically described as feeling like snapping a rubber band on the skin over and over. If you went through the experience of having a reciprocating needle inserted into your skin repeatedly when you got the tattoo in the first place, you’ll probably be able to handle the discomfort of laser removal. Clients describe the lingering sensation as similar to a burn or blister.
How Much It Costs
The whole process can cost anywhere from $100 to $500 per session, and since it can take as many as 10 sessions to complete, you could end up with a pretty hefty bill. But if you have a really awful tattoo, it is definitely worth considering, and the process is considered safe enough that it’s typically done without anything stronger than a skin numbing cream.
Correction 11/28/17: In the original version of this article, it was stated that a laser must match the wavelength reflected by ink pigment, when, in fact, it must match the wavelength absorbed by ink pigment. The article has been edited to reflect that fact.