Recent research suggests tattoos are as popular as ever, with a 2018 survey by McCrindle finding that one in five Australians has at least one tattoo. But not every tattoo ends up being something its owner is proud of. Whether it’s hindsight, an artist you ween’t happy with, or hiccups in the healing process, a skin stamp can easily become something you want off your body ASAP. Indeed, the same McCrindle research found more than three in ten (31%) tattooed Australians had some regrets about their ink.
While you can’t magic a tattoo away, laser removal may be an option worth considering, as it can be tailored to a range of situations and desired outcomes. But it may not be the ideal solution for everyone, for various reasons – especially those with a low pain threshold. Speaking to Canstar, tattoo artist Allegra Maeva explained that the laser removal process as “about ten times as painful as getting a tattoo”, and warns that it can be expensive to boot.
So with that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to laser tattoo removal, how it works, how much it might cost you, and what situations it may be a suitable solution to.
What is laser tattoo removal and how does it work?
Laser tattoo removal is a process in which a licensed individual uses a machine known as a q-switch or ultra-short pulse laser to break up the ink that forms an unwanted tattoo. The ink particles in question are usually large enough that they can’t be broken down by the body’s white blood cells, but the laser can rapidly heat the ink particles to the point that they fragment and can be flushed out by the body.
Anyone operating a laser for tattoo removal purposes must be appropriately licensed for both the possession and operation of the device. The licensing requirements can vary depending on the state or territory you’re in, but as an example, Queensland based removalists must have “observed the advice of a knowledgeable medical practitioner” before beginning removing any tattoos. The medical practitioner in question must also be supervising the client’s treatment.
The process isn’t instant, and may require multiple sessions spaced out over the course of months, depending on the size of the tattoo, its location on your body, the method used and your skin tone. The laser removal process can cause redness, swelling, and blistering, which can be painful and can take as long as a month to heal.
How much does laser tattoo removal cost?
Much like getting a tattoo to begin with, the amount it ends up costing you to have your tattoo removed via laser will mostly depend on how long it takes for the tattoo to fade to the extent you desire. However, the amount of time this takes will be influenced by several factors, including:
- The size and location of the tattoo you want removed
- How old the tattoo is, and how much the ink has already faded
- The colour of the inks used in the tattoo (according to the Australasian College of Dermatologists, black ink is easier to remove than coloured ink)
- Whether you’re aiming for full removal or just trying to lighten the tattoo
Some laser removal clinics provide price guides for laser tattoo removal based on tattoo size. For example, Melbourne laser removal clinic Doff & Flux quotes the following average costs for a range of different tattoo sizes:
- 2cm x 2cm – $65
- 6cm x 4cm – $90
- 9cm x 9cm – $180
- 15 x 10cm – $270
- ½ A4 = $360
- A4 – $540
- >A4 – Custom price
However, these are averages, and the factors mentioned above may influence the end cost of having your tattoo removed.
It’s also worth noting that some laser removal businesses will, much like tattoo artists, have a minimum fee for their services. So, if a clinic states a minimum fee per session or per tattoo removal, it won’t matter how small the tattoo in question is; you’ll have to pay the stipulated minimum amount.
Is laser tattoo removal covered by health insurance?
Generally speaking, health insurance will not provide cover for laser tattoo removal, as in most cases it is considered a cosmetic procedure rather than a medically necessary one. That being said, health insurance may provide some cover for any medical treatment required in the event of complications resulting from adding, updating or removing a tattoo, such as infection.
Why might you want or need laser tattoo removal?
Ms Maeva notes that changing tastes are a common reason for someone wanting to get their tattoo removed.
“You might be into the tattoo concept to begin with, but then a few years or even just a few months go by and your interests have changed,” she says.
However, Ms Maeva also notes there are several other reasons you might decide to get your tattoo removed. Perhaps the healing process didn’t go according to plan, or you’re disappointed with the quality of the tattoo. Some people even get tattoos removed not because they dislike them, but because they want to make room for more or bigger tattoos.
How to end up with a tattoo you love and want to keep
Ms Maeva says that before you book a tattoo appointment, you should have a firm idea of what you like and what you want.
“Research is really important, down to the style that you like and what shop you want to go to,” she says, adding that it’s worth taking the time to “find people that specialise in exactly what you want.”
For those getting their first tattoo, she recommends “having a chat with them and not being afraid to ask questions”, because “it can get a bit nerve-wracking but you want to make sure they know exactly what you want.”
It’s not just the artist you might want to research – Ms Maeva also stresses the importance of “finding a good shop that’s sanitary,” in order to help minimise your risk of infection.
She stresses that it can be worth paying more for a high-quality tattoo rather than trying to find an artist who’ll do your tattoo for less. “Good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good,” she said.
What are some other options for dealing with my unwanted tattoo?
If laser removal is a path you’d rather not take, there are other options for dealing with unwanted tattoos that you may find are better-suited to you, based on your personal circumstances.
Depending on the size and style of the tattoo, you may be able to cover it with a new tattoo. According to tattoo removal specialists, Think Again, this works best for smaller, coloured tattoos, as cover-ups generally need to be both larger and darker than the original tattoo in order to effectively hide them. This means that if your unwanted tattoo is large and comprised of dark tones, it may not be a suitable candidate for a cover-up. This is where laser removal techniques could help, as they can be used to lighten the original tattoo to a point where covering it up becomes feasible.
However, if you’re not interested in replacing the original tattoo with a better one and just want it covered, you could consider having it ‘blacked out’, which simply involves going over the entire tattoo with black ink to completely cover it.
Another – perhaps more extreme – option suggested by plastic surgery practice, Artiste, is getting a skin graft. This involves taking a patch of skin from somewhere else on your body and attaching it to cover the tattoo. If all goes to plan, after the wound has healed, which can take around seven days, the new skin will have covered the layers of skin holding the ink. However, Artiste says that there will still be discoloration on the skin for up to a year.
Alternatively, if you’re more concerned about other people seeing it than you are about having to see it yourself, you could simply choose to cover the tattoo with clothing. Long-sleeved shirts and pants can go a long way towards covering all but the most extreme of tattoos.