Tattoo removal has been performed with various tools since the history of tattooing. While tattoos were once considered permanent, it is now possible to remove them with treatments, fully or partially. Before the development of laser tattoo removal methods, common techniques included dermabrasion, TCA (Trichloroacetic acid, an acid that removes the top layers of skin, reaching as deep as the layer in which the tattoo ink resides), salabrasion (scrubbing the skin with salt), cryosurgery and excision which is sometimes still used along with skin grafts for larger tattoos. Some early forms of tattoo removal included the injection or application of wine, lime, garlic or pigeon excrement. Tattoo removal by laser was performed with continuous-wave lasers initially, and later with Q-switched lasers, which became commercially available in the early 1990s. Today, “laser tattoo removal” usually refers to the non-invasive removal of tattoo pigments using Q-switched lasers. Typically, black and other darker-colored inks can be removed completely.
Widely considered the gold standard treatment modality to remove a tattoo, laser tattoo removal requires repeat visits. The newer Q-switched lasers are said by the National Institutes of Health to result in scarring only rarely and are usually used only after a topical anesthetic has been applied. Areas with thin skin will be more likely to scar than thicker-skinned areas. There are several types of Q-switched lasers, and each is effective at removing a different range of the color spectrum. Lasers developed after 2006 provide multiple wavelengths and can successfully treat a much broader range of tattoo pigments than previous individual Q-switched lasers. Unfortunately the dye systems used to change the wavelength result in significant power reduction such that the use of multiple separate specific wavelength lasers remains the gold standard.
The energy density (fluence), expressed as joules/cm2, is determined prior to each treatment as well as the spot size and repetition rate (hertz). To mitigate pain the preferred method is simply to cool the area before and during treatment with a medical-grade chiller/cooler and to use a topical anesthetic. During the treatment process, the laser beam passes harmlessly through the skin, targeting only the ink resting in a liquid state within. While it is possible to see immediate results, in most cases the fading occurs gradually over the 7–8 week healing period between treatments