Laser vs. Dermabrasion Tattoo Removal

Tattooing is a timeless art form that’s become trendier in recent years with tattoos now frequently turning up in court rooms to board rooms, on artists, professionals and everyone in between.

But not everybody likes tattoos. And after a few years, many people don’t like their own tattoos. Fortunately, many options exist for removing a tattoo that’s outlived its appeal, but how can patients decide which one is right for them1? Let’s examine two of the most popular methods – laser tattoo removal and dermabrasion tattoo removal.

Before we get to options for removing a tattoo, we’ll discuss getting a tattoo and exactly how it’s done, because it impacts how we remove tattoos.

How Tattooing Works

Tattoo artists use an electrically powered machine with several fine needles at the tip. Ink is fed into the needles, which puncture the skin up to 3,000 times a minute, depositing color into the dermis, where it is remains permanently.

Or at least it used to. While it’s not technically possible to “untattoo” inked skin, there are now numerous ways to get down into the dermis and remove ink deposits. One method is called dermabrasion tattoo removal.

Dermabrasion Tattoo Removal: How It Works

Dermabrasion is abrading of the skin or in this case very deep exfoliation. Using a high-speed brush (or wheel) the skin is in essence sanded down to reach and remove the ink stained skin. Like most tattoo removal methods this is a process, and it would require multiple treatments. Since tattoo ink is located about a millimeter below the skin, the top layer of skin must be removed as well as the dermis layer containing the ink2.

This type of tattoo removal is not without its risks. For one, the procedure is not precise, and the brush can easily abrade extra skin. After dermabrasion treatment, the skin will look and feel very raw, and because the skin is open, it’s more sensitive to infections.

Because dermabrasion is so aggressive and it requires multiple treatments, many people experience scarring as a result. Finally, dermabrasion is not designed for large tattoos or any with complex colors and shades. Overall, this procedure may work for small tattoos, but is very limited when it comes to bigger pieces.

Laser Tattoo Removal: How It Works

Laser tattoo removal offers a bloodless, low-risk, effective way of removing larger, more complex tattoos3. A typical laser tattoo removal session begins with numbing the area slightly before applying one of several types of lasers to the tattooed area. Lasers use intense light to pass through the skin; the light is selectively absorbed by tattoo pigment, causing it to fragment into small particles that are then harmlessly absorbed by the patient’s body.

Tattoos treated by laser tattoo removal will initially develop a frost that lasts about 20 minutes or so. Over the following weeks, the ink will begin to fade. Like all tattoo removal procedures, laser tattoo removal does require a series of treatments, usually done at 8-10 week intervals.

Gradually, with the right number of treatments, laser tattoo removal will cause the old tattoo to fade. Most of the time, people will experience a near complete fading of the tattoo in as few as five sessions. In other cases, there may only remain a small shadow of tinting where the tattoo was – all with minimal pain and scarring.

1. Malca, N (2017). Dealing with tattoos in plastic surgery. Annales de Chirurgie Plastique Esthetique. 2017; 62: Pages e15-e21.
2. Peris, Z. (2002). Removal of traumatic and decorative tattoos by dermabrasion. Acta Dermatovnerologic Croatica. 2002; 10(1): Pages 15-19.
3. Naga, LI (2017). Laser Tattoo Removal: An Update. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 2017; 18(1): Pages 59-65.

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