Tattoo removal: latest technology

Throughout history, the art of tattooing has evolved to make its mark across all classes of society. Unique trends, styles and techniques have emerged with different cultural adoptions, while numerous variations in technology have made the art what it is today – a popular and prevalent way to shape identity and individualise self-expression. Indeed, in Australia approximately one in 10 people have had a tattoo at some point in their lives.

Inevitably, alongside this increase in popularity, there has been a rise in the people seeking to undo a decision they now regret. Once upon a time, tattooing was considered a permanent and irreversible undertaking. Now, with the introduction of new technologies, tattoo removal has become highly sought-after and impressively effective.

Throughout history, various methods have been trialled for use in tattoo removal. Preceding the introduction of laser tattoo removal systems, dermabrasion, salabrasion (where the skin is scrubbed with salt) and excision with skin grafts were common techniques for tattoo removal. Trichloroacetic acid has also been used to remove the top layer of skin, reaching as deep as the layer where the ink resides. Historically, injections of wine, lime juice, garlic and pigeon excrement were used in a bid to dissolve the ink pigment in regrettable tattoos.

Evolution of tattoo removal technology

In the 1990s, laser tattoo removal entered the commercial market. Initially, this procedure involved continuous-wave lasers before Q-switch lasers, which deliver a pulsating light beam, were introduced. Considerable success in removing black and darker coloured tattoo pigment can be achieved using Q-Switch lasers. A number of treatments (between 10 and 20) are usually required to reach the desired result and lighter ink shades –  blues, greens and acquas – typically remain in the skin after treatment.

The latest innovation in tattoo removal technology is the PicoSure laser. PicoSure uses a pulse length of a trillionth of a second – called a picosecond. This pulse is 100 times shorter than that used in previous technology. PicoSure uses the patented PressureWave technology to shatter the smallest of ink particles, clearing even stubborn blue and green inks, as well as previously recalcitrant tattoos that failed to clear.

Its primary mode of shattering the ink is from the intense photo-mechanical wave that is created, and not as much from photothermal effects as seen with traditional nanosecond lasers. This incurs a different, more effective, reaction in the skin, where the ink particles fragment and disperse before being flushed from the body, offering a greater degree of clearance of ink per treatment, which means less time removing the tattoo.

Because of the intense wave that is created, lower fluences (the energy delivered per unit area) can be utilised to achieve ink particle fragmentation, causing less trauma to the surrounding skin and reducing the risk of scarring and fibrosis.

PicoSure is equipped with an Alexandrite wavelength (755nm). This wavelength has the ability to target difficult colours, including green, blue, purple, black and brown inks. Tattoos can be cleared in as little as one to three treatments, depending on the location, layering and colour of the tattoo, compared with up to 12 or more treatments with the traditional Q-switched nanosecond laser.

Patients may experience some blistering immediately post-laser, purpura (purple or red-coloured patches at the treatment site) and skin redness, especially if it is their first treatment, but this should subside over the next day or two.

Advancements such as these grant new hope to people who had previously given up on an ink-free body. Tattoo removal can now be achieved with fewer treatments, less reaction and more effective results.