Not feeling that flaming skull tattoo with your ex’s name across it anymore and wondering if you can stomach the pain of tattoo removal? Rest easy — while laser tattoo removal can hurt, chances are it won’t hurt as much as getting the tattoo did.
Tattoo removal pain is comparable to the pain of a bad sunburn, and the laser pulses feel like a rubber band snapping against your skin. Cringe-worthy, yes, but tolerable.
Laser tattoo removal uses pulses of high-intensity laser to penetrate the upper layer of skin — or epidermis — to break the pigment into smaller particles. Those smaller particles are then absorbed into your body and metabolized.
While mostly effective, laser tattoo removal isn’t exactly a quick fix.
It takes multiple treatments to do the trick. How many depends on the size of your tattoo and the colors (lighter colors are
Laser isn’t your only option for removing a tattoo. There’s also dermabrasion, which involves sanding off the top layer of skin. (Ouch, right?)
Surgery is another option, though this is obviously more invasive — it involves cutting away the tattooed skin and stitching the remaining skin back together.
No two people’s pain experience is exactly the same for a few reasons, beginning with your personal pain threshold.
The skill and experience of the person doing the removal can also impact how painful the experience is, which is why having it done by a licensed dermatologist is recommended.
A trained dermatologist can adjust the treatment to your comfort level and give you a numbing cream or injection of a local anesthetic to minimize or prevent pain.
You know how some parts of the body are more painful to tattoo than others? The same goes for tattoo removal.
We asked Dr. Stacy Chimento, board certified Miami dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology, to explain why.
“Touch receptors are distributed unevenly throughout the body, therefore making some areas of the body more sensitive. Different parts of the body also differ in types of touch receptors. Some receptors are more sensitive to pressure, while others respond to low- or high-frequency vibrations,” says Chimento. “Your fingertips, ribcage area, forehead, ankles, wrists, and around your armpit are some of the places where it may be more painful for laser tattoo removal.”
There are things you can do to help minimize the pain of tattoo removal, starting with using a numbing agent.
“Using a numbing cream on the skin may be an effective way to reduce pain,” says Chimento. “This topical anesthetic blocks sodium channels, so the nerves can’t send pain signals to the brain. Numbing creams are available to purchase over the counter and are available as creams, sprays, and liquids. I would recommend speaking to your dermatologist before using a numbing cream.”
Applying ice can also help reduce pain, according to Chimento. “Placing an ice pack or ice on the tattoo area will numb the area and make the procedure less painful. Make sure to put a washcloth or towel between your skin and the ice. This will prevent irritation or redness of the skin.”
What you do after each appointment matters, too.
“Usually, laser tattoo removal is not a one-and-done deal. You need to have multiple treatments to remove it. You should avoid the sun as much as possible before, during, and after your laser tattoo removal. If you spend a significant amount of time in the sun before your sessions, your skin becomes weaker, and there is a higher chance of damage to the skin,” Chimento says. “Also, your skin might not be as responsive to the lasers, which will make it harder for the lasers to remove the tattoo. This will result in more sessions, and more sessions equal more pain.”
Chimento recommends applying sunscreen before and after your tattoo removal to prevent damage to the skin and waiting 4 weeks after your laser tattoo removal before excess sun exposure.
Going into your appointments feeling rested and as relaxed as possible can also make you more comfortable. Relaxation techniques, like breathing exercises or distracting yourself by listening to music, can help.
Tattoo removal may not be as pleasant as a day at the beach, but there’s a good chance it’ll hurt less than getting the tattoo did. If you’re worried about pain — which is totally understandable, BTW — ask your dermatologist about numbing options.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.