Whether it's your ex-lover's name or a hasty (drunk) decision from your early 20s (no judgment!), you're not alone. Lots of people have tattoos they wish they could do over. Luckily there are a few options for getting rid of unwanted ink.
1. Laser Tattoo Removal
The most foolproof way is laser removal. Usually done by a dermatologist or tattoo removal specialist, lasering can remove the tattoo with little to no damage to your skin. The downside? It’s expensive, takes several sessions, and can be quite painful—and no, your insurance won’t cover it.
Dermatologists usually offer two kinds: Q-switched and PicoSure. “We’ve been using the Q-switched laser for the past 20 years,” says Nazanin Saedi, M.D., a dermatologist and director at the Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Dermatology Center. “It gives off energy in nanoseconds—one billionth of a second. In a super-short amount of time, you’re putting energy [into the skin] that gets absorbed by the pigment, and it causes the pigment to break."
That makes it much easier for your body to get rid of the ink (just like it tried to do when you initially got the tattoo, remember?). "Your body starts chewing away at the pigment," says Tina Alster, M.D., a dermatologist and the founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. "And [the pigment] gets cleared through the lymphatic system—whatever is closest to the location of the tattoo." Alster says that the ink will stay put in your lymphatic system and won't do any harm.
Saedi says sessions are usually spaced four to eight weeks apart to give your body time to get rid of it all. It takes most people eight to 10 sessions, and each session runs about $600 to $800 for a large tattoo—cha-ching!
Recently docs have started using another newer laser: the PicoSure. “The lasers distribute energy in a pico of a second, so it’s a lot faster than a Q-switch,” Saedi says. (A picosecond is one-trillionth of a second, if you're keeping count.) “We can also use less energy, so we cause less damage to the tissue.”
Another way to picture it, Saedi says: “The Q-switched would separate the ink into little pebbles, but the PicoSure lasers turn [the ink] into sand—and that’s much easier for the body to get rid of.” This translates to fewer sessions for complete removal.
And there’s another advancement dermatologists are trying: “Some people are now using perfluorodecalin—PFD—patches to help with removal,” Saedi says. PFD (no, not PDF) patches help eliminate the small gas bubbles that develop on the surface of the skin when using the laser. “It optimizes the individual session, so you need less sessions to remove the tattoo entirely,” she says.
While laser removal works, it's not without drawbacks—namely, pain. "We use a topical numbing cream, even for the brief lasers for small tattoos," Alster says. "Many times people say that removing it hurts just as much as getting it." Ouch.
Still, the results are hard to deny. If you follow proper aftercare instructions from your doc, chances are your tattoo will be gone forever and your skin returned to its previous uninked condition.
2. Cover-Up Tattoos
If you still want a tattoo—just not the one you currently have—a cover-up might be your best option. Mario Delgado, a tattooist and owner of Moth and Dagger Tattoo, has done several cover-ups throughout his career—some, he says, to help disguise prison tattoos when someone is trying to start anew. He’s also tattooed numerous cancer survivors' scars pro bono.
If you’re considering a cover-up, here's what Delgado says you need to know:
You'll need to pick a dark, dense design.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but Delgado stresses that your cover-up tattoo must be a lot darker than your original. For example, if you have a black barbed-wire tattoo wrapping your bicep, you probably won’t be able to cover it with a light-colored daisy chain. Likewise, airy tattoos with lots of blank space won’t work.
It’s going to be bigger than the old one.
Again, might be obvious, but if you need to cover a design, the new tattoo will need to be larger—not the same size. How much larger is open for debate. Some sources say double in size; others three to four times, depending on the original.
You might not completely cover the old tattoo.
“You’re probably always going to see the design underneath,” Delgado says. “But a good cover-up distracts the eye from the old tattoo.” In other words, don't expect a miracle.
3. Dermabrasion and Salabrasion
Technically this is an option, but we would never recommend it.
A quick Google or YouTube search will reveal a slew of how-tos for salabrasion or dermabrasion—essentially scrubbing your tattoo out with saltwater. Warning: It's bloody. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this method is potentially scarring and really friggin' painful.
“Anything abrasive would be very caustic and cause damage to the skin,” Saedi says. “Before lasers, people would use chemical peels or dermabrasion to destroy the top layer of the skin, but that could be scarring or disfiguring.” Not to mention if you’re doing it yourself, it likely won’t work after a single session. Also, can we mention the pain factor again?
Similarly, Saedi cautions against so-called tattoo fading creams. “I feel very skeptical that something that causes no damage to the skin can somehow miraculously dissolve the ink particles,” Saedi says. “I’m not aware of anything that can do that.” So don’t believe what you read on eBay or suspicious packaging. Chances are, those “miracle” fading creams won't work—or if they do, they might end up burning you or causing permanent damage to your skin.
The Bottom Line
If you have a tattoo you don't like, it's probably best to save your cash and see a pro. But if you just aren't willing to commit, you aren't alone.
"When we were first doing removals, there was a backlog of tattoos people wanted to have removed," Alster says. "But these days, even though tattoos are ubiquitous, many people are opting not to remove them. Even though people may regret it, they don’t want to spend the time and money to get it removed."
In other words, you're not the only one out there with a lingering, bad tattoo.