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How Painful Is Removing A Tattoo? An Expert Breaks Down The Process

If you didn't spend a good amount of your teenage years lusting over the idea of getting a tattoo on a questionable part of your body, then were you ever really a teenager? Whether you couldn't wait until you were 18 to get "Live Laugh Love" across your foot or a big ol' heart permanently drawn on your wrist, odds are you at least thought about getting a tattoo. And if, in fact, you were one of the brave ones who took the plunge and actually got a tattoo on a complete whim, then it's possible you considered getting it removed. However, getting a tattoo and actually getting a tattoo removed are two completely different beasts to tackle. Needless to say, there are plenty of things you have to consider when getting a tattoo removed: the cost, the number of sessions, and of course, how painful removing a tattoo is.

Well, to clear up some of the misconceptions that are associated with tattoo removal and the amount of pain that comes along with it, I reached out to David J. Goldberg, M.D., J.D., of Lumenis, a company that creates medical devices that use intense pulsed light (IPL) lasers and radiofrequency technology to treat aesthetic issues (i.e. melasma, skin rejuvenation, acne scars, and tattoo removal). Goldberg offered great insight about what to expect when heading into your first tattoo removal appointment.

The darker the tattoo, the more painful the removal process.

Courtesy of Lumenis

While Dr. Goldberg says that topical numbing creams may be used during tattoo removal, if you have a dark, intricate tattoo that you'd like removed, odds are it will be more painful than a simple manuscript tattoo. "The newer Lumenis laser is less painful than the tattoo removal lasers of years ago, but treatment can still be uncomfortable," he says. "[But] the general rule is that the darker the tattoo (the denser the pigment), the more it hurts."

Earlier treatments hurt the most, but the pain doesn't last long.

Courtesy of Lumenis

According to Dr. Goldberg, earlier treatments are more painful than the later treatments, as there's less pigment to be removed later. Also, contrary to popular belief, the discomfort that comes along with getting a tattoo removed surprisingly doesn't last long. In fact, Dr. Goldberg says, "All discomfort is generally gone within 15 minutes of treatment if cooling or silicone gels are applied after treatment." He continues that those silicone gels should be used for two weeks following the treatment.

Much to my surprise, Dr. Goldberg also says the sensitivity of a patient's skin doesn't affect the amount of pain they feel during or after the removal process. "Tattoo treatment can be done on the most sensitive skin — this is not usually an issue."

Older and simpler tattoos are less painful (and faster) to remove.

So how long does a tattoo take to get removed? According to Dr. Goldberg, that is a loaded question that can't be pinpointed with one direct answer. However, he says older tattoos are removed more quickly typically. "[This is] always a question that is asked but unanswerable since the FDA does not control tattoo parlor delivery of ink, and we never know what is in them. The general rules are the older the tattoo, the quicker it clears; the less [amount of] color, the quicker it clears," he says. "If there is one tattoo that has been placed on top of another tattoo, it takes that much longer. As a general rule, the Lumenis laser requires one-third less treatments as compared to older lasers of five years ago."

So what are the benefits of using a Lumenis laser for removal services versus the other lasers on the market? Dr. Goldberg says that the Lumenis PIQ04 system is the most diverse system on the market, combining four different wavelengths with four different pulse durations to make for a quicker, less painful removal process.

So before you drunkenly hit up the tattoo parlor around the corner from you, consider whether or not you might want to get it removed later, and if you're willing to put up with everything that goes along with it.