• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The bad news about tattoo removal

Photo/Getty Images

Tattoo regret is rising, but removal of the offending ink isn’t painless – for the person or their pocket.

The good news is that it’s possible to get rid of a tattoo that – for whatever reason – no longer sparks any joy. Or at least fade it enough to get another, more-desirable design tattooed over the top. The bad news is that it will take a lot longer and cost a lot more than getting the original tattoo – and probably hurt just as much.

“People come in thinking it’s going to be gone in three sessions,” says Wellington dermatologist Jennifer Pilgrim, who has been removing tattoos using a Q-Switched laser machine – the “gold standard” treatment – for 15 years.

If the tattoo is small and has been applied using only black ink, three treatments might do the trick. But larger, complex, multicoloured tattoos – particularly those featuring green or blue, which require removal using a special type of Q-Switched laser machine, called a ruby laser – take a lot longer to get rid of.

RelatedArticlesModule - Tattoo removal cost and pain

According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 47% of people needed up to 10 laser sessions to successfully remove their tattoos and another 26% needed more than 15 sessions. With the sessions spaced about eight weeks apart to allow the treated area to heal, that’s a significant time commitment.

“I have been treating some people for a couple of years and their tattoos haven’t gone yet,” says Pilgrim.

The study found that successful removal was less likely if the tattoo was larger than 30cm by 30cm, included colours other than red or black, had been there longer than three years and was on the legs or feet.

It’s expensive, too – at least compared with the cost of getting a tattoo. A recent article by Australian consumer-advocacy group Choice found it costs about A$4500 to have a 10cm by 10cm multicoloured tattoo removed in Sydney or Melbourne. Although no similar figure is available for New Zealand, costs here start at $85 a session and increase depending on the tattoo’s size.

The cost of tattoo removal would probably be $185 a session, on average,” says Jane Graham, a former nurse turned laser technician, who has been specialising in tattoo removal at her Wellington clinic for nearly five years.

Laser technician Jane Graham. Photo/Supplied

Until fairly recently, having a tattoo was relatively uncommon. Now it seems every second person has one – particularly if they’re under the age of 40. According to a 2015 survey by US online polling company Harris Poll, 47% of millennials and 36% of Gen Xers have a tattoo, whereas just 13% of baby boomers have one.

Not surprisingly, tattoo regret has also risen, from 14% in 2012 to 23% in 2015. As a growing number of people are finding, they don’t want to spend the rest of their life with a deep and meaningful quote inked on to their arm – a type of tattoo Graham is often asked to remove.

“They are very sincere about the quotes at the time, but they [the quotes] eventually start to seem a bit silly,” she says.

Previously, tattoos had to be removed using chemical peels or dermabrasion, or by cutting them out. However, Q-Switched laser machines have been a game-changer. They work by using short bursts of high-intensity laser energy to break up the ink into small particles that are eventually excreted by the body or absorbed into the lymph nodes or other tissues.

Not all Q-Switched lasers are created equal. A good machine costs between $70,000 and $300,000. And although a $10,000 knock-off may remove black ink, it’s also likely to cause scarring. Unfortunately, lack of regulation in the industry makes it hard for consumers to know whether they are being treated by the real thing or not.

Tattoos of any colour cannot be removed with what’s called an IPL laser, which is used for such things as hair removal or to treat sun-damaged skin. These machines, which are much cheaper, can cause serious burns and scars if used for tattoo removal.

Having the right machine is important, but Graham says it’s just as important to have an operator who knows what they’re doing. “I’ve actually seen some pretty horrific scarring [caused] by people who haven’t been properly trained.”

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.