If something hurts when you put it on, it makes sense for it to not hurt when it’s taken off, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t always so.

Removing a tattoo can hurt just as much, if not more, than getting it done. 84% of the participants in a study described the pain they went through while undergoing laser tattoo removal as moderate to extreme.

Pain is usually what deters people from getting their tattoos removed, however regrettable they may be. But this doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to make the pain easier to bear. Here are six straightforward answers to frequently asked questions about why tattoo removal hurts and ways to help alleviate tattoo removal pain.

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1. So why exactly does tattoo removal hurt?

Anyone who’s ever gotten hurt accidentally by a lighter or hot water can readily understand how heat can hurt. 

The pain of removing a tattoo has the same root cause: the very high temperature to which the tattoo ink is heated during the procedure. This kind of ink contains metals which—as anyone who’s ever touched the wrong side of a steam iron or stovetop kettle would know—can get painfully hot. 

2. Just how painful is tattoo removal?

Different people have different levels of pain tolerance—some wince just thinking about needles, let alone getting a tattoo. Others are able to “grin and bear it”, while still others have compared tattoo removal pain to childbirth and wisdom tooth extraction. Some clinics do a “patch test” first to see how well a person can tolerate the pain.

The location of the tattoo also plays a role in how much it will hurt when removed because of the number of nociceptors or pain receptors certain body parts have. Removing tattoos in the following areas are therefore likely to hurt more:

  • Feet
  • Ankle
  • Hands
  • Fingers
  • Neck
  • Less fatty areas
  • Bony areas

The good news is that the process of removing a tattoo, in itself, doesn’t last long, with many sessions lasting about half a minute to three minutes, tops. These few minutes of pain are mild in comparison to the hours of pain during tattoo application.

Also, tattoo removal pain doesn’t usually last long after it has been inflicted. This means that the pain will have dissipated by the time you leave the clinic. In addition, since laser tattoo removal takes more than one session, especially when removing stubborn tattoos, each succeeding session will hurt less because there won’t be as much ink to remove.

3. What does tattoo removal feel like?

Sometimes, knowing what to expect helps some people to “brace themselves” for the shock experienced when it happens. Although, having already had a tattoo done should give you a fair idea of what laser tattoo removal feels like.

Tattoo removal pain during and after the procedure has been described as

  • Having a rubber band snapped against your skin
  • Scratching a bad sunburn
  • Drops of cooking oil from a frying pan splashing on you
  • Getting stabbed with hot needles or knives over and over very quickly

Treated areas have likewise been described as very itchy, throbbing, or painful or uncomfortable when the area is moved.

4. Can anything be done to ease tattoo removal pain?

Since the pain of removing a tattoo is primarily caused by heat, it makes sense to counter it with cold. Applying a cold compress or ice pack to the treated area for about 5 to 10 minutes before and after a session can help make it feel a little more comfortable. 

Many clinics apply a numbing cream to the area at least 30 minutes before removing a tattoo as it takes some time for the cream to take effect. However, the numbness wears off in a couple of hours. These creams usually contain benzocaine, lidocaine, prilocaine and tetracaine.

Note that the cream will not numb the area or nullify the pain completely, which means the sensations from the actual removal process will still be felt. Also note that using too much numbing cream can be dangerous, and that some people might even be allergic to it. 

Be sure to ask your doctor for advice and follow your doctor’s instructions if you should have recourse to over-the-counter creams. 

Local anaesthetic injections such as those containing lidocaine are another option of dealing with tattoo removal pain. Medical professionals alone are permitted to administer such injections, which is why having your tattoos removed at a reputable clinic rather than a tattoo studio is recommended.

The amount of  injections given depends on how many or how large the tattoo to be removed is. Once administered, the injections are likely the most pain that will be felt during the session, as the laser tattoo removal itself will not be felt at all. Do note, however, that pain will set in once the injection wears off. 

Squeezing stress balls might also help to manage the pain, as keeping calm during the session is essential. It’s also not advisable to undergo the procedure on an empty stomach, but don’t take any coffee, tea, chocolate or soda as the caffeine content might interfere with your ability to stay calm. Do drink a lot of water before the session. 

5. What about taking pain medications to help with tattoo removal pain?

You can take non-aspirin pain relievers before laser tattoo removal, but be advised that aspirin, ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory or NSAID medications increase the risk of bruising and haemorrhaging as reported in this study

6. Does the skill of the doctor have anything to do with how much tattoo removal hurts?

While tattoo removal pain is a given, how much it hurts can also depend on the skill of the doctor. If the doctor hasn’t had enough training or experience in using the laser equipment, the procedure can be a lot more painful than it has to be. Using old or outdated equipment can also increase tattoo removal pain significantly. 

The doctor must also be sensitive to the discomfort of the person undergoing the procedure. On the other hand, doctors aren’t mind-readers—patients shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if the pain is too much for them to handle to enable the doctor to make adjustments.

Letting the doctor know beforehand about any concerns you might have about how much tattoo removal hurts, is the first step towards effective tattoo removal pain management. Talk to us at The Aesthetics Centre to find out how laser tattoo removal can be made e as comfortable as possible for you.


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