When I was about 20 I decided that I would get a tattoo completely on a whim. I was in Camden on a day out with my sister and I decided that I would walk into a tattoo parlour (dingy horrible little place) and pick a design out of a book. It wasn't my first tattoo and so I didn't have any reservations about the pain or anything, I paid £20 and was out within 15 minutes. It took me about a year to start hating the design and another year to decide that I wanted to actively look at getting it removed.
I came across a lady who worked under the guise of Madame Silver and was based in Oxford, about a 45 minute drive from me. I had heard some great personal reviews from people around Reading and I wanted to talk to somebody who was respected in the industry and took extreme care during the process, rather than simply looking for the cheapest place. Luckily, I chose the perfect person as Jen Silver (Madame Silver) is probably one of the most lovely humans on Earth and managed to calm me so much that I was barely nervous about my first session, which would be a patch test, to check that I had no adverse reactions.
The laser that Jen uses is a YAG Laser. I am not going to attempt to explain the science behind laser tattoo removal but essentially what the laser does is blasts the ink with a pulse of light which creates a shockwave effect. Essentially, the ink particles are broken up into parts small enough for the body to carry away naturally. I had the misconception that the device would be touching my skin and dragging, similar to a tattoo gun. However, the laser is held a few inches away from the tattoo area and a good removal specialist will give you special sexy glasses to wear so that you can watch the process.
It is very hard for me to describe how it physically feels to have a laser tattoo removal session. It feels hot, almost like a slight burning sensation but in a very acute, specific area. It doesn't feel like a tattoo design session feels (that dragging, cutting sensation). Instead it feels a lot more "stingy", sort of as if somebody is snapping an elastic band against your skin repeatedly. I've been told that different people find it more or less painful than others; I did find it painful but actually I found it very easy to deal with by chatting away to Jen.
Madame Silver in particular is very good at distracting you from the pain and she's also very aware of your demeanour as a patient (probably because her background is in actual surgical care as opposed to someone who did a Health and Beauty BTEC in college). If you want to stop and take a break she will happily oblige, but I never found that I needed to stop. The whole laser process from start to finish takes around 5 minutes, maybe less. I imagine that you may need a few breaks if you were having a huge area lasered.
One thing that I didn't anticipate was the NOISE. The YAG Laser emits pulses of hugely powerful and concentrated light. Consequently, the machine makes a loud "thrashing" noise with each pulse. It sounds like a loud click of electricity and I'd say that around 2 clicks per second are emitted. This was a bit perturbing in my first session but I quickly got over it, it's just something to be aware of in advance if you're thinking of having a tattoo removed.
I've included a GIF below of the removal process to give you a good idea of how it looks. This is not my tattoo, and I don't know who this man is. I've totally ripped it off Reddit- no credit to me here...
It's hugely important to care for your tattoo after you've had a laser session. One thing that people don't realise is that you can't expose the recently treated area to direct sunlight. I found that this was most likely to occur on the drive home from the parlour so I made sure that I brought someone with me who could drive us home so that I could hide my wrist in the shade for the journey.
Madame Silver issues these amazing cooling packs after each session. They have a clicker inside (like those handwarmers with the metal clicker that you pop for it to heat up?) and they feel so soothing after you've had your arm under a laser. I also purchased some Laser Lotion from Madame Silver. I have no idea what's in it but it feels amazing. Jen makes it herself and it's cooling and really moisturising so your skin drinks it up. It is common for people to blister immediately after the session and you have to resist the urge to pick and jab at the blisters (that's how scarring happens!) so an aftercare lotion of some sort really helps. I've included a disgusting photo of my tattoo after my second laser session so that you can see what I mean.
I know that the removal process is completely different for different people and a number of factors influence how quickly your tattoo will fade. Things like your skin type, colour, the quality of the tattoo and the colour of the ink will all influence the total removal time and the number of sessions you might need.
I actually found that I need more sessions that we originally thought. I don't have a great immune system and my body just isn't carrying away the ink as quickly as the average pasty while girl. Certain things can be done to speed up the process such as increasing the strength of the laser beam (this depends on whether your skin can tolerate it, and also whether you can tolerate the increased pain) but you have to enter into the process knowing that anybody who can give you a definite "It will be gone in 4 sessions" is 100% lying to your face. I've had 5 sessions so far, and I need more. My friend had a huge tattoo removed from her arm in only 2 sessions. Be really careful about the promises that some parlours will make you; this is relatively new technology (in terms of mainstream tattoo life) and there are a lot of people out there charging very little to do a really crap job.
Your laser tattoo removal specialist should absolutely do a patch test on you before committing to any further sessions. This involves lasering a small piece of the tattoo and sending you away to keep an eye on it as some people react badly. Your removal specialist should also run through all of the risks and should really put your mind at ease about the procedure whilst making you aware of the consequences. Anybody who doesn't ask for your ID or do a general assessment of your skin condition is negligent and I wouldn't go anywhere near them. Laser tattoo removal can scar your skin if it's done carelessly. Why risk it? Below is a photo of my tattoo today so that you can see the difference...
- Does it hurt? Yes. It hurts. It's tolerable though. I didn't cry and I'm a total wimp.
- How much does it cost? You should expect to pay anywhere from £30-£50 per session. I've seen some places advertising sessions for £10- DO NOT GO THERE.
- Does it damage the skin? If you see a reputable and experienced specialist and you look after your skin then no, it won't scar. If you pick at your scabs or try to do it on the cheap then it probably will.
- Can any tattoo be removed? No. Removal is most successful on clients with light skin tones and a tattoo on an area with more body fat like the arms, buttocks or legs. The results of laser tattoo removal on clients with darker skin tones or dark tans and tattoos on areas with less body fat like ankles or fingers may not be 100% effective. Black ink is removed most effectively.
- How long does it take? This really depends on the individual. It is recommended that you leave around 6 weeks in between each session. For somebody who needs three sessions this won't be a long time. If your tattoo is large or you need more sessions then it could take a year or two.