Tattoos used to be the ultimate sign of permanence. Tattoos used to loudly and proudly announce that this tattoo owner is willing to bet his or her skin on this piece of art. Now that modern science has been tasked with figuring out how to remove tattoos, that is no longer the case.
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.
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.