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  • Writer's pictureDr. Chuck Lortie MD, FRCPC, FAAD

How Do Lasers Remove Tattoos?

Updated: Mar 30, 2023


A brief history of laser tattoo removal

Since the introduction of the medical laser in the early 1960’s, doctors have been utilizing this high energy light-based devices to remove tattoos. Initially, there were only continuous wave lasers that delivered a steady flow of laser energy. Unfortunately, this technology was not specific and often destroyed tissue in addition to pigment, potentially leaving significant scar tissue behind.


With the advent of the theory of photo-thermolysis in the 1980’s, it was confirmed that short laser pulses should more specifically heat up the small ink particles while sparing the skin. As a result, medical Q-Switched lasers were developed and became more available during the 1990’s. This gave laser tattoo removal a quantum leap forward. Q-Switched devices generated very rapid pulses of laser energy. In fact, even these now older Q-Switched laser could typical produce pulses as short as several nanoseconds (billionths of a second).


What are picolasers?

Since 2013, however, a commercial picolaser was introduced that could produce pulses as short as several hundred trillionths of a second (picoseconds!). Subsequently, picolasers in this range have been proven to be able to break apart even some of the smallest tattoo particles. In addition, tattoos treated with picolasers generally require fewer treatments and achieve higher clearance rates.


A tattoo laser must also must provide sufficient power to break tattoo particles apart despite the energy pulses being so brief. The crest of this energy surge is described as the laser's peak power.


Interestingly, the color (or wavelength) of the laser light utilized can be just as important as the pulse duration and peak power This is because specific wavelengths are absorbed better by certain tattoo colors, rendering them more effective (eg. red lasers are often more effective against green tattoos).


What is the best laser to remove a tattoo in Sherwood Park?

The most efficient laser tattoo removal should be achieved by a picolaser with an exceedingly short pulse duration, high peak power and multiple available wavelengths to choose from.


After much research, as a dermatologist seeking the best technology for our patients, we have introduced Candela’s PicoWay laser for our patients. The PicoWay meets all these criteria with one of the shortest pulse durations available and 4 wavelengths to select from. It is no wonder that the PicoWay has established a reputation as an industry leader in tattoo removal.


Is laser tattoo removal painful?

Tattoo removal can be achieved quite comfortably. Though lasers must deliver energy into the skin to break-up tattoo ink, the latest lasers do this more efficiently than ever before. Generally, client comfort is also improved by cooling the skin with a constant flow of chilled air. Another option is to apply topical anesthetic cream prior to treatment. Though such numbing creams are available over the counter, most dermatologists will have a potent custom topical anesthetic preparation available on request.


How many treatments are required to remove a tattoo?

Simple tattoos with dark colors (black, dark blue) can often be cleared in just a few treatments.

More complex tattoos with more challenging colors (light blue, purple, yellow) may still require multiple treatments (5 or more).

In summary, every tattoo is unique and a professional assessment is necessary to ensure the proper laser settings. This should minimize the number of treatments while optimizing the end result.

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