Starting to regret that tribal insignia you got emblazoned around your arm when you were 18? Here’s what it’ll cost—in money and time—to get rid of it.
Back in 2003, roughly six per cent of Canadians claimed to have at least one tattoo. Today, that number has almost quadrupled. Toronto’s many tattoo-service establishments boast an eclectic clientele primarily in the 18 to 35 age group, ranging from teenage punks to lawyers. And yet there are only a handful of tattoo-removal businesses in the city. While this form of indelible body art—once relegated to criminals, sailors, and warriors—has become increasingly mainstream, one in 10 Canadians regret their decision to get inked. So here are nine things you should know if you’re sick of looking at your tattoo.
1. Laser treatment is the most common tattoo-removal technology
The most popular method involves a Q-switched laser, which emits laser pulses in nanoseconds, shattering the ink molecules underneath the skin into smaller pieces, so that they can be absorbed by the body. Once the laser makes contact with the tattoo, the skin turns ghost white—or forms what’s known in the industry as “frosting.” But it usually goes away in 30 minutes. The treated area will look raised and irritated; the surrounding area red and swollen. Some tattoo-removal businesses have a cooling machine in the room to numb the skin, which eases the discomfort for clients. All parties present wear protective eyewear during the procedure. Gauze is applied on the treated area at the end.
2. The procedure is performed in two parallel industries
Laser tattoo removal can be performed by laser technicians (who are classified as aestheticians) at tattoo-removal businesses, or by dermatologists, who are medical professionals. But not many people consider the latter option. While Toronto Public Health does not proactively inspect cosmetic clinics or establishments offering only tattoo removal, they would notify the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) if they received a complaint about an adverse reaction related to tattoo removal performed at a medical clinic. (In such a scenario, CPSO may inspect, bring TPH in to inspect, or perform a joint inspection.) However, if the contested procedure was performed at a tattoo-removal establishment, only TPH would inspect.
3. It usually requires several laser treatments
It is the age and depth of the ink—not the size of the tattoo—that determines how long the whole process will take. Larger tattoos are more time-consuming, but not necessarily more difficult to remove. Whether the tattoo is small or large, laser technicians and dermatologists recommend spreading each treatment, which can range anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes long, at least six weeks apart. This minimum wait time allows the skin to heal and the body to absorb the tattoo pigment. However, a return to virgin skin can’t be guaranteed—some faint tattoo pigment may remain even with several treatment sessions. In fact, Lorraine Prata—a laser technician at Toronto Ink, a tattoo parlour that also offers tattoo removal—has seen some significant scarring on clients who went to establishments where technicians tried to rush the process. The average tattoo requires six to 12 treatments, which add up to about one to two years.
4. It will hurt your wallet
The average tattoo costs $100 to $240 per session to remove—or, a minimum total of $1,000 if the procedure is performed by a laser technician. However, the cost per treatment session ranges from $200 to $600 if you go to dermatologists. To put those figures in perspective, the lasers required for tattoo removal can cost upwards of $100,000, with annual maintenance fees well into the thousands.
5. It will most certainly hurt you, too—during and after
While everyone has a different threshold for pain, both clients and laser technicians use similar analogies to describe the feeling. Kevin Yateman, manager of Adrenaline Tattoos on Queen West, had a treatment to lighten what he sarcastically calls an “awesome” dancing robot the size of a baseball located on his right hip (a decision made at 16). “It feels like an elastic band is repeatedly snapping against your skin,” says the now 25-year-old, who went to Fading Fast, a tattoo-removal business on Eglinton East in 2010. The treated area, he says, “stung, like sunburn.” The pain can last anywhere from a few days (as in Yateman’s case) to a few weeks depending on skin sensitivity.
6. You may experience side effects
The treated area might crust and scab, which will go away within a week. Some people may also experience blisters, hyperpigmentation (unusual darkening of the skin), or hypopigmentation (lightening), all of which are rarer. Prata, who has treated about 400 clients, says that darker skin tones are more prone to hypopigmentation and keloids.
7. You must follow proper aftercare to avoid infection
Take off the gauze a few hours after the treatment to allow the treated area to breathe. Constantly keep the area clean with soap and water. Apply Polysporin cream a few times daily to aid in the healing process.
8. Blue, green, and yellow hues are harder to remove
All colours absorb light, so long as the light’s wavelength is within the range that colour can absorb. However, according to Mike McLaine, owner of Precision Laser Tattoo Removal Clinic, “traditionally, green and blue were difficult to remove even with lasers operating at one of the best wavelengths to do so.” His clinic’s PicoSure laser—the only one currently in operation in Ontario—is more effective at removing those very stubborn ink colours, as it operates at a much faster speed. Unlike Q-switched lasers, the PicoSure operates in picoseconds instead of nanoseconds. (There are 1,000 picoseconds per nanosecond). It uses a photomechanical energy to essentially “punch” the ink molecule much harder, McLaine explains, breaking up the ink more effectively. While there is some contention among different laser technicians and dermatologists over what specific colours are most difficult to remove—some say yellow, orange, and red—there’s no disputing that black is easiest.
9. Smokers may be at a disadvantage
Many dermatologists and laser technicians have noticed a significant difference in removal outcomes between smokers and non-smokers due to what they believe is a weaker immune system, which in turn affects a smoker’s ability to flush out ink from the body. According to Prata, studies have shown that smoking reduces the chance of successful removal treatment in 10 sessions by nearly 70 per cent.
Have you had a tattoo removed? Any advice you’d like to share for those considering going under the laser? Let us know in the comments section below.