The allure of make-up has been discussed time and time again, dissected amongst beauty pundits and the public alike. Responses are, oftentimes, diverse and divergent. Some credit its appeal to its ability to grant confidence, where users are able to craft an illusion to meet a certain beauty standard. Then there is the argument that it is a creative outlet and form of expression. What unifies both camps, however, is the consensus that its pull lies in its impermanent nature. Defined brows and a contoured jawline can be swiped away with a cotton pad soaked in micellar water, replaced by powdery arches and a flushed visage in a matter of seconds. Your follies do not stay with you—the same, however, cannot be said for other forms of modification. See: tattoos.
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It’s safe to say that the act of injecting ink into the dermis layer of the skin has more enduring consequences than slathering on a layer of self-tanner or bronzer. Still, the immutable essence of tattoos do serve a distinct purpose, allowing for us to commemorate memorable moments and/or people in our lives. And while its eradication might prove tricky, it is certainly not impossible. A solution arrives in the form of laser tattoo removal; a procedure that involves the breaking down of ink particles with a high intensity light beam.
“This actually allows the body’s immune system to naturally remove the ink from the skin over time,” explains Dr Gerard Ee, founder and aesthetic doctor at The Clifford Clinic. “The entire process does comprise several steps, and can take multiple sessions to achieve the optimum results.”
But what does the whole procedure entail? And is everyone a suitable candidate for laser tattoo removal? We tap in on the expertise of medical professionals to answer your burning questions below, from the possible ramifications of removing your tattoos to the aftercare required. Everything you need to know, below.
How does laser tattoo removal work, exactly?
It is as it sounds—a strong beam of light that is directed at the tattooed area in short pulses so as to dissolve pigment residues over time. “It is a relatively simple procedure. To sum it up: numbing cream is applied prior to the laser treatment. After some time, it will be removed and the laser procedure will commence,” elucidates Dr Ee. “After the laser treatment, the technician then applies an antibacterial ointment, before covering the treated area with a simple dressing. That’s all.”
Does the laser remove all types of tattoos?
Yes, for the most part. There are, however, caveats to note. “It depends on the age of the tattoo, the type of ink used, the size and location of the tattoo, and the skin type of the patient,” states Dr Ee. “Such considerations will guide the type of laser used, the wavelength of the laser and also the energy setting at the start of the treatment session.” Dr Lim Ming Yee, medical director of MY Medical Aesthetics, adds: “For instance, do note that raised and scarred tattoos—a common occurrence during certain tattooing procedures—or ink used to cover up pre-existing scars may require more sessions to lighten.”
White or pastel-coloured tattoos, too, are more difficult to remove according to Dr Ee. This is because laser energy is absorbed by the pigment in the tattoo, and lighter colours do not absorb the energy as well as darker colours. Handpoked tattoos as well—they tend to have a more uneven distribution of ink due to its manual insertion—which can make it a tad more tough to remove.
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When will patients begin to see results?
“Depending on the size and complexity of the tattoos, multiple laser sessions may be necessary to achieve complete removal,” Dr Ee affirms. “Typically, sessions are scheduled 4-6 weeks apart to allow the body time to absorb the ink particles that have been broken down by the laser. As such, it is a gradual process, though patients can usually see some lightening after the first session.”
Who should avoid going for laser tattoo removals?
It is best that pregnant and or nursing women as well as individuals with skin conditions prone to scarring such as eczema avoid the treatment altogether. “Some individuals may not be suitable candidates due to certain medical conditions or medications they are taking, which may interfere with the healing process or increase the risk of adverse effects,” Dr Lim supplies.
Are there any medical-related risks that come with getting your tattoos removed?
While tattoo laser removals are generally regarded as safe and effective, there are some possible side effects. Take, for one, scarring. “This is likely to occur if the patient has a history of keloids or hypertrophic scars. Do note that scarring is more likely to happen, too, if the patient picks at or scratches the treated area during the healing process,” warns Dr Ee. Individuals are also at risk of infections if the area is not properly cleaned and cared for after the procedure.
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“In some cases, laser tattoo removal can also cause hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation, which is an increase or decrease in the skin’s natural pigmentation,” says Dr Ee. “This can result in a patchy, uneven appearance of the skin in the treated area.” Texture changes are also likely, resulting in rougher, bumpier skin particularly if scarring occurs.
What are some of the best aftercare practices to engage in?
Dr Ee finds that the most important factor lies in keeping the treated area clean and dry. “Patients should avoid soaking the treated area in water until the skin heals. This will usually take a week or two. The area should be gently washed with mild soap and water and patted dry with a clean towel,” he instructs. “Apply topical ointments or creams as directed—this is to minimise chances of skin infection.” It is also best to avoid sun exposure, or to cover the area with clothing or a bandage.
Dr Lim, on the other hand, finds that a cold compress tends to work as well. “Place it over the treated area,” he states. “This should help soothe discomfort. Side effects should subsequently subside within a few days.”
Are there any other alternative treatments to laser tattoo removal?
“There’s surgical excision and dermabrasion, but do note that the former works best for small tattoos and will leave a scar, as it involves the tattooed skin being surgically removed and the remaining skin being sutured together,” Dr Ee answers. “The latter involves removing the top layers of skin using a high-speed rotary device. This method is more painful than laser tattoo removal and can also cause scarring.” If anything, there is also the option of covering up the tattoo with new ink from a tattoo artist. As it goes, if you can’t remove something entirely, simply remake it to give it new meaning.