Some early forms of tattoo removal included the injection or application of wine, lime, garlic, or pigeon excrement, can you believe! Before the development of laser tattoo removal methods, common tattoo removal techniques included dermabrasion, acid, scrubbing the skin with salt, and surgical removal. Fortunately Q-switched lasers now offer state-of-the-art safe and effective tattoo removal.
But beware! Not all tattoo removal machines were created equal.
How does laser tattoo removal work?
Basically, tattoos consist of thousands of particles of ink pigment suspended in the skin. During the tattoo removal process, the laser beam passes harmlessly through the skin, targeting only the ink particles of the tattoo. These particular lasers break down the ink in the skin cells into a much smaller particle size. Your immune system can then move the tiny particles out of the body through your lymphatic system.
Here, however, is the big catch:
No single laser can remove all tattoo colours: different laser wavelengths treat different colours and sometimes you may need multiple lasers to effectively remove all the pigment. All tattoo pigments have very specific light absorption capabilities and the laser machine being used must have the correct amount of energy within that colour spectrum to remove it effectively.
Sounds complicated… Let's break it down:
IPL – Intense Pulsed Light Laser Machines
IPL lasers are not q-switch lasers that work in nanoseconds – IPL lasers work in milliseconds which is much slower than a nano second.
The beauty about q-switched lasers is the speed: the laser shoots out at such a high speed that the surrounding skin is not heated, yet the energy is able to collapse into a shock wave that effectively fragments the tattoo ink particles. This is a photomechanical effect.
IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) used for hair removal has a photothermolysis effect, with large surface energy dispersion that can create a lot of heat and therefore burning and scarring which is often a likely outcome.
The best laser tattoo removal machines are Q-switched lasers - but not all Q-switched lasers are the same
The introduction of the Q-switch laser in the 1990’s heralded a significant improvement in the world of laser tattoo removal by reducing scarring and pigment changes in the skin being treated. It was and is still considered the gold standard for tattoo removal.
Q-switch refers to an optical device within the laser machine that stores and releases energy with very short pulses and extremely high peak powers. But not all Q-switched lasers are the same, and some are definitely less effective than others!
Q-switch with Dye Attachments
Some of the Q-switch lasers on the market have “dye attachments” which help create other wavelengths, often 650 nanometres and 585 nanometres. These laser manufactures and their laser removal businesses will state that their machine is capable of moving all colours effectively, however…
“Unfortunately the dye systems used to change the wavelength result in significant power reduction such that the use of multiple specific wavelength lasers remains gold standard.”
The use of dye attachments can reduce the power or potency of the laser by up to 90%
What this means is that if the tattoo being treated used red, green or blue ink, the removal of these pigments will be ineffective due to the reduced power. So with way less energy being delivered during each laser pulse, fragmentation of the pigment will not occur. So you will have to spend more money to get the job done and have an unhappy outcome as your tattoo will not fade significantly.
Picosecond lasers are q-switched lasers that have a pulse of picoseconds, which is much faster than a nanosecond. That is really the significance. They are more expensive machines (often double the price of a nanosecond q-switch laser) but often only use one wavelength. Only having one wavelength means it is effective for only one tattoo colour and will mean you will again spend more money trying to get a half decent tattoo removal.
Picosecond systems are vastly underpowered compared to nanosecond systems.
This forces practitioners to use smaller laser spot sizes when fluence (energy dispersion) levels need to be increased. No picosecond system gives practitioners the flexibility to effectively treat the full spectrum of tattoo colours and patient skin types. A study comparing tattoo fading responses from picosecond and nanosecond lasers found that “the qualitative nature of the ink changes were no different between that of tattoos treated with the two types of lasers.”
Producing picosecond lasers with high pulse energy have proven to be both difficult and prohibitively expensive. Because of these difficulties, the picosecond systems that have made it to market have not delivered on their marketing promises and are plagued with reliability issues. Read this article about a picosecond manufacturer involved in a class-action lawsuit regarding their false marketing promises.
Q-switched Alexandrite lasers - this is considered the weakest of all devices.
It has a wavelength of 755 nanometres, and according to the colour spectrum it will work well on green tattoos. Due to its weaker power however, it will only work moderately well on black and blue. It does not work well on red or orange.
There is a picosecond model, with anecdotal claims that it removes ink faster. This does not change the fact that the wavelengths the laser is able to emit is not effective on reds or oranges and not completely effective on blacks and blues, no matter how fast it is.
Q-switched Nd:YAG 1064
This is the only laser that is suitable for darker skin types because it is poorly absorbed by melanin, the normal pigment that gives you your skin colour (darker skins have more melanin). It is therefore the only laser that is best to remove black ink on any skin colour.
Generally, people who have quite dark skin tend to only have black ink tattoos as other colour inks are barely visible. They are therefore safe with the 1064 laser. This is the best laser for greens and blues, however, it is important to note that green ink particles can clear more slowly. It is suspected it is due to particle size of the green colour being significantly smaller than other colours. Either an Alexandrite or Ruby plus a 1064 might need to be used.
Q-switched Nd:YAG 532
This is highly absorbed by melanin and is therefore considered the most effective laser for age spots and sun spots (freckles). It is also the best wavelength for red and orange pigment tattoos. So this is the one you want for removal of your red ink.
This has a wavelength of 694 nm that works well on greens and blues as it works within those colours spectrum. It is a laser that can potentially create pigmentary changes in darker skin such as loss of colour (hypo-pigmentation) or an increase in colour (hyper-pigmentation).
After reading this, you may then wonder: “Why do some tattoo removal companies have the wrong laser wavelengths for all colour tattoo removal?”
The answer is pretty simple: Tattoo removal is a side business and not their primary business.
These companies primary business is skin care, offering cosmetic improvements such as wrinkle reduction and laser re-surfacing for women. Their lasers work really well for facial rejuvenation but are not entirely suitable for tattoo removal. They are NOT effective at removing all shades of tattoo inks and so they can only achieve less than optimal results, regardless of the before and after pictures they advertise.
Science can categorically prove this, as evidenced by real-world shoddy and dangerous end results.
The other possibility, and we know this has happened, is that laser owners don’t know science and didn’t do their research well and so were sold by the marketing of laser companies.
As you can imagine, a laser machine that provides three actual wavelengths (with no dye attachments) will save you the bother of having to go to different laser clinics to get all your colours removed.
When you go to a clinic for tattoo removal, it can cost you significantly less over the course of the treatment as well as providing a faster tattoo clearance rate because we can target all tattoo ink colours at the same time, in each session.
A Q-switched laser is able to emit 1064, 532 and a Ruby laser all in one, a machine with two entirely separate lasers housed in the one machine.
The Quanta Q plus C is the most recommended machine - the brand chosen by the Vatican for fine art restoration and the one chosen by us for your art modification. It was also the first Q-switch laser company to introduce the homogenous beam for even energy dispersion. A true gold standard product for tattoo removal.
For more information about removing a tattoo, please contact the expert contributor.