There are basically two ways to get rid of a tattoo: the “do-it-yourself” way, which means applying tattoo removal creams, ointments, and topical solutions; and the “let-the-professionals-do-it” way—through excision (a surgical technique used to remove the tattooed skin), dermabrasion (exfoliating the tattooed skin); and laser tattoo removal (shattering ink particles embedded in the skin using medical-grade lasers).
There are hundreds of topical products for tattoo removal in the market today. A tattoo removal treatment using medical lasers, on the other hand, is done at dermatology clinics or aesthetics facilities. That’s because you need a professional to configure the devices. With the wrong wavelength settings, the treatment wouldn’t work or, worse, could even harm you.
You could opt to have your ink erased or lightened to the point where it’s barely visible. You can also get a “fade” procedure to partially erase your ink and have your artist tattoo over it. But before we get into the details of how to get it off, let’s first look at what goes into the ink that’s used for your tattoos and essentially, what you’re putting into your body when you get inked.
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What goes into tattoo ink?
Tattoo ink has two components: the carrier and the colourant. It also has additives, including binding agents, fillers, preservatives, and surfactants—to avoid the growth of microorganisms and prolong shelf life.
The carrier is the fluid that transports the colourant to the tattoo area. It’s a solution that contains isopropyl alcohol, glycerin, water, and other organic or non-organic ingredients.
The colourant is what gives colour to the tattoo. These are pigments made out of intensely coloured compounds that reflect light. Pigments are essentially finely ground solid particles mixed with liquid.
There are basically two kinds of pigments: organic and inorganic. Organic pigments come from natural sources while inorganic pigments—the same ones used in paint, printing ink, and plastic.
For the past 20 years, most tattoo artists have been using more inorganic or synthetic organic pigments (derived from petrochemicals such as coal tars), which look brighter and last longer.
Today, most tattoo inks, especially the ones with bright colours, are created from compounds that mostly use heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium, copper, cobalt, or lead.
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How do pigments become tattoos?
For most people, getting inked is a simple matter of picking a design and colour, choosing an artist, and basically just trying not to cry through the often-painful process.
Technically this is what happens: Multiple tiny needles puncture the skin, essentially injecting the ink particles from the surface of the skin (epidermis) down to the dermis, which lies beneath.
It’s quite interesting that the moment the ink enters the body, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign material and tries to get rid of it. White blood cells converge to engulf the pigment granules. But the cells are way smaller than most of the granules—that’s why tattoos are practically permanent.
So, if you’re asking if a tattoo will fade then the definitive answer is, “yes, it will in time.” How long the tattoo will last depends on whether your immune system is good at breaking down “foreign materials” and how fast it can flush them out of your system.
The white blood cells are continually dragging the pigments from the skin down to the liver, which breaks down the pigments into even tinier bits that are passed out of the body naturally.
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Are tattoo removal creams effective?
Many tattoo removal creams contain trichloroacetic acid (TCA), which acts as a chemical peel. When applied to the skin, the acid causes the epidermis to come off—supposedly taking the tattoo with it.
However, when creams can only go as far as the surface of the skin—that’s why they’re also known as topical products—and aren’t really absorbed by the dermis.
Hydroquinone is also a common ingredient in tattoo removal creams. It helps fade out the pigments by decreasing the body’s melanin production. Other ingredients include salicylic acid, astringents, Chromabright, stearic acid, and loads of skin lighteners—most if not all of which are not organic.
There are, however, tattoo removal creams that contain organic materials such as lemongrass, a natural astringent; and liquorice, which also lightens the skin (along with the tattoo on it). Other organic lighteners include ascorbic acid and kojic acid, which are also in most “skin-whitening” products.
Even with all that lighteners and acids and bleaching agents, tattoo removal creams only succeed in making the tattoo blurry or cause it to fade—and that’s about as far as the good news goes. The bad news is, you run the risks of side effects that run the gamut—from rashes, redness, and itchiness to blistering, chemical burns, permanent scars, or skin discolouration.
TCA may trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and other side effects. PIH is a condition where dark-coloured pimple-like spots appear on the skin, which could take up to a year to heal with medication.
Like TCA, hydroquinone and other chemicals found in tattoo removal creams could trigger anaphylaxis, especially if you turn out to be extremely allergic to these ingredients. Then you might experience difficulty breathing and nausea.
Studies also show some people may develop contact eczema or contact dermatitis. It’s when the skin becomes inflamed and uncomfortable from coming into contact with an irritant or allergen.
The bottom line: the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that no tattoo removal creams or ointments have been shown to work. Chemicals like TCA are recommended for treatment in clinics and hospitals, but not for home or personal use.
Does tattoo removal cream really work? FIND OUT!
What is a safe medical procedure to remove tattoos?
For removing tattoos, as well as treating acne scars and uneven skin pigmentation, our patients find that the PicoWay laser procedure produced the most satisfactory effect. We provide this kind of treatment using the FDA-approved PicoWay™ device marketed by Candela™.
PicoWay is a current laser tattoo removal procedure intended to be performed by licensed professionals. It comes in three wavelengths (532nm, 785nm, and 1064nm), which determine (1) the depth of penetration that the laser has on the dermis; (2) the pigments that the laser can treat; and (3) and the skin type that the laser can work on.
In tattoo removal, the objective is to break down the tattoo ink pigment into the smallest possible particles. PicoWay is known to have the fastest operating laser at 300ps on the 785nm wavelength. The speed of the laser is what generates a photoacoustic shockwave.
This photoacoustic energy is what shatters the pigments into very tiny fragments. The more minuscule the particle, the easier it is to remove and the faster it is for the body to pass out naturally.
The laser is delivered onto the skin at a trillionth of a second or what’s called a picosecond. At the rapid speed at which light is beamed onto the area, there’s not enough time for the skin to absorb the heat and damage to the surrounding tissue is avoided.
To gauge the effectiveness of different laser tattoo removal machines, you need to digest the concept of pulse duration. A picosecond is a measure of time wherein 1,000ps is equivalent to 1 nanosecond and 1ns is a billionth of a second. The lower the number, the faster the laser, the least likelihood of damage to the skin.
Here are 5 Things About Laser Tattoo Removal—and it’s all you need to know. READ NOW!
The Mayo Clinic
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