How Does Laser Tattoo Removal Work

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 4.14.18 PMTo better understand how laser tattoo removal works, it’s helpful to first learn more about the tattooing process and how tattoo ink is formulated.

Let’s start with the process of tattooing:

The tattoo artist uses a mechanized needle loaded with dye, positioning the sharp tips of the needles on top of the skin, at the starting point of where the desired tattoo will be placed.

Once engaged, the electrically-powered needle moves up and down into the skin, puncturing it while injecting ink particles down through the epidermis (the top layer of your skin) and into the second layer of skin, which is called the dermis. That’s where the nerves, and blood vessels are, so no wonder getting a tattoo hurts!

The needle moves very fast, puncturing the skin anywhere from from 50 to 3,000 times per minute. During this process, the needle may reach a depth of a millimeter or more, where it deposits the ink. The reason the ink is released so deep into the skin is because if it wasn’t, we’d shed it over time and it would eventually disappear. That’s because we lose about a million skin cells per day!

Every time the needle reaches the dermis, it creates an inflammatory response by where the immune system cells (or white blood cells) rush to the site of the injury. These agents, called macrophages, “eat” whatever they can of the ink deposits in order to heal the area. They then carry them through the lymphatic system to be disposed of. However, many of the macrophages don’t make it out of the dermis and instead stay trapped where the ink was placed, which is what creates the tattoo. Other ink particles not consumed by the macrophages remain there as well in a web-like gel of the dermis. The rest of the ink gets engulfed by dermal cells called fibroblasts. All of this contributes to the tattoo you see on your skin.


Now let’s look at tattoo ink and what it is made up of:

The tattoo ink itself is made up of a compound, which in most cases is partly unknown. Depending on the color of the ink and how it was developed, there may be a variety of pigments including mineral pigments, modern industrial organic pigments, vegetable-based pigments, or plastic-based pigments that were combined to create the ink colors.

The challenge is that ink types vary, as do the inks tattoo artists combine to get certain colors and effects. And none of it is regulated by the FDA, so the specifics of the ink that was used in your tattoo are largely a mystery.

We do know however, that most ink is made up of metal(s). Bright colors are made up of heavy metals. Yellow is made up of cadmium, chromium or lead. While blue may have copper or cobalt in it. Purple contains manganese or aluminum salts. Natural black pigment is made from iron oxide, carbon and logwood. Red may be made up of cinnabar, cadmium red, iron oxide and napthol.

The combinations in any given tattoo are unlimited, making every tattoo authentically unique. That’s why it’s impossible to predict the exact time it will take to remove your tattoo.

Now that you understand the tattooing process, let’s get into the laser tattoo removal process:

From moment you get a tattoo, your body recognizes it as a foreign object that doesn’t belong. That puts white blood cells on alert, and they immediately work toward engulfing the ink particles in order to transport them through the lymph nodes.

Because the body’s white blood cells will do everything in their power to get rid of your tattoo, over time your tattoo will fade and blur. You’ve probably noticed that a new, fresh tattoo tends to have very defined, crisp lines and deep, vibrant colors. But as it ages, it changes because the ink particles begin to find their way out of your body.

However, for the most part the grain of tattoo pigment is so large, that the white blood cells aren’t able to move the majority of it. They may get a few pieces here and there, but not enough to remove your tattoo without some additional assistance.

Laser tattoo removal uses laser energy that is directed at the tattooed area for a fraction of a second over a period of moments or minutes, depending on the size of the tattoo. When the laser hits the skin, it passes harmlessly through the epidermis or outer later of the skin, and targets the tattoo ink directly.When laser pulses of light penetrate the tattoo, ink granules shatter, making them more compact and therefore easier to transport by the white blood cells. That’s where the laser comes in…

Laser Tattoo Removal Breaking Tattoo Ink Into Particles

The laser disrupts the ink, and breaks it into smaller pieces. Imagine your tattoo is a boulder under your skin. When the laser zaps it, it is broken up into smaller pieces, or rocks if you will. Your body’s white blood cells take the smaller remnant pieces of those rocks, and transports them through your lymphatic system.

During your next laser tattoo removal treatment, the same thing happens except the pieces are smaller, think pebbles, enabling more of them to be picked up by the white blood cells. With each subsequent laser tattoo removal treatment, the ink fragments get smaller and smaller. Laser tattoo removal treatments continue until the ink is broken into small enough particles that they all eventually pass through your system.

The effectiveness of the laser at breaking them down is determined by the ink compound. Heavier metals are harder to fragment, as you might imagine, making tattoos with heavy metal inks more challenging to remove.

The process continues to happen over time, even long after your last tattoo removal treatment. This disposing of foreign objects within your system is a natural occurrence, and the laser is just a catalyst for making it happen more quickly.

After your first laser tattoo removal treatment and every treatment in between, you’ll see that over time, your tattoo becomes lighter and less noticeable. The time it takes for this to happen is different with everyone.