Q&A with The Times Magazine: Can tattoos be fully removed?

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Answering all questions on laser tattoo removal at Pulse Light Clinic

TV shows like tattoo fixers suggest that lots of us have gone for designs we regret. But is there a reliable way to get rid of unwanted ink?

Can tattoos be fully removed?
The ink used for tattoos is generally made from compounds of heavy metals like lead, copper and manganese. A needle is used to push the ink deep into the skin. The body reacts to the intrusion by sending white blood cells to engulf the metal particles. Some ink particles that are small enough to be carried by the white blood cells are taken to the liver where they're processed. The larger ones can't be carried off by the white blood cells, meaning the tattoo will fade over time but won't disappear entirely.

How does tattoo removal work?
We use the PicoWay and PicoSure lasers that fire very, very short pulses, but high energy pulses of light into the skin. The pulses are about a thousandth of a millionth of a second long, so incredibly short, and the energy from the lights goes into the tissue and it doesn't harm the skin, it travels through until it actually hits the tattoo pigment and then the light is absorbed into the pigment and these large clumps of pigment that were trapped in your skin, when the light's absorbed, it's so fast that it actually breaks these larger clumps of pigment into smaller particles. Now the smaller particles can be absorbed and taken away by your autoimmune system, your macrophage, your white blood cells. They come in and they sort of gobble up the small particles of pigment and therefore they fade down the tattoo.

How long does it take?
Getting a tattoo is a relatively speedy process, but removing one takes time. When the tattooist is doing the tattoos, obviously put it in there to make it permanent so it's not going to be easy to remove. This will normally consist of coming in to see a tattoo practitioner, every eight weeks for up to eight treatments that can take up to a year and a half. Sometimes it can take longer depending on the result that the client wants. At times a client will come in with the intention of wanting to cover it up. Then of course, that's not going to take as long. We would normally do a certain amount of treatments, maybe four to six, depending on the tattoo that I am seeing. I will then decide how many treatments I think they need. They would go and see that tattooist and then the tattooist would be like, I'm happy with that and that's when they would stop.

Does it hurt?
Removing a tattoo can be quite painful often more so than getting it in the first place. Although the lasers do heat the ink particles to thousands of degrees, they don't burn the skin, but they do create shockwaves that vibrate through the skin, causing the upper layer to rise slightly and appear white. This process called frosting does hurt, but the effects only last a couple of seconds. You can also experience a short term rash or some slight bleeding after the treatment.

Are there any long term risks?
Because some colours are particularly difficult to remove, you may not be able to get rid of your tattoo completely. Yellow, green and purple ink require more sessions to fade than black, blue, and red. There's also a chance that the area where the tattoo has been removed from temporarily becomes darker or lighter than the surrounding skin. Permanent scarring is relatively rare, but it does occur in about 3% of cases. Tattoo removal can be great for anyone who seriously regrets their ink.

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