Laser Tattoo Removal

Tattoos do not need to be permanent. When performed by a skilled professional, tattoo removal can be a safe and effective medical procedure.

Tattoo being removed in a medical facility

Our Approach

Tattoo removal through University of Iowa Health Care is performed by an experienced physician assistant under the supervision of a board-certified dermatologist.

When it comes to removing your tattoo, our care team will consider:

  • How long you've had the tattoo
  • Colors in your tattoo
  • Where the tattoo appears on your body
  • Color of your skin
  • Your overall health

Laser Tattoo Removal

Laser technology is most commonly used in tattoo removal. Using a laser helps ensure:

  • Safe lightening of tattoos with a low risk of side effects, such as burning or scarring of skin
  • Efficient removal or lightening of tattoo ink with the fewest amount of treatments
  • Removal of all tattoo inks—from dark tones to bright colors
  • Treatments that fit every individual's unique skin type

Laser tattoo removal generally does not require anesthesia. Our care team uses laser technology to lighten tattoo ink with minimal pain or discomfort, and with results that exceed alternative or do-it-yourself tattoo-removal methods.

What to Expect During Tattoo Removal

Lasers eliminate tattoos by breaking up the pigments in tattoo ink with short but strong pulses of high-intensity light. These pulses of light pass through the top layers of skin and are absorbed by the tattoo ink pigment only. The pigment particles are then naturally absorbed by the body’s own immune system.

Tattoo removal typically involves several treatments. Smaller tattoos require fewer pulses from the laser, while large tattoos will need more pulses to break down the pigments. A laser-treated tattoo should gradually fade with each treatment.

The exact number of laser treatments will depend on the tattoo’s size, location, depth, and color. In general, tattoos applied by amateurs are easier to remove and require fewer treatment sessions than tattoos applied by professional tattoo artists.


What is the recovery time after having a tattoo removed? Will there be a scar?

The recovery time per treatment is usually several days. It depends on the type of laser system that is used to remove the tattoo. There are three main types of lasers that are used to remove tattoos. They are all called Q-switched lasers. That basically is a fancy way of saying 'very high energy.' There is the Alexandrite, Ruby, and NdYAG.

There tends to be a little bit more blistering and scabbing with NdYAG than the other two lasers. What the patient will notice is that the skin turns white immediately which is just some superficial heating of the upper surface of the skin. That lasts less than a day. They may have a little bit of flaking of the skin that lasts for a couple of days. There usually is not a lot of bleeding. There may be pinpoint bleeding.

Laser tattoo removal isn't a one-time treatment no matter which of the three systems is used. Let me explain why that is because everyone ought to know. The lasers do not remove the pigment from that tattoo, what they do is break up the ink into smaller pigment particles which the body digests from the inside out. You wait a couple of months between each treatment to give the body a chance to heal, then the patient has another treatment. It is not a one-time treatment, it is a two-to-three-day recovery after each treatment.

Depending on whether the tattoo was amateur or professional as to how many treatments it takes to fade the tattoo. If it is amateur, it takes four to six and if it is professional, it is eight to ten on average. With any of those three procedures, the risk of scarring is very low, between one to two percent.

Is laser tattoo removal dependent on size and color?

Size is not much of an issue although color is to some extent. The Ruby and Alexandrite lasers treat most colors very well except for red. The NdYAG does red very well but doesn't do blue and black as well as the other two lasers. The size of the tattoo is not a problem, except it is a longer procedure, and the cost is more for the procedure, but the size is not a factor.

What are the risks associated with using lasers on the skin?

Risks depend on the type of laser that is being used. For the nondestructive lasers, the risk of scarring is generally low, a few percent or less. For the destructive lasers, meaning carbon dioxide or erbium or blends of those two, the risk of scarring is higher.

The main risks of the other lasers are the pigmentary changes, either slightly lighter or darker skin that is usually temporary, swelling for a few days or superficial flaking of the skin or sometimes blistering. For some of the lasers, you will get temporary bruising of the skin and occasionally superficial scabbing.

I had a tattoo removed and there are still bluish bumps on my arm—will these go away?

It is unusual for 'bumps' to occur. Bumps depend on the type of laser that was used and how many treatments used. For example, it is not unusual after one or two treatments to notice that there is still pigment because multiple treatments are required.

Some people who go between treatments, longer than a couple of months, will notice continued improvement in color even though they don't get additional treatment because the body continues to digest what the laser has broken into smaller pieces

I was wondering about a tattoo that I got four days ago. It's really sore and has a rash on it. Is that normal and what do I need to look for in an infection?

Only a thorough examination can diagnose an infection. Consult your doctor if you suspect an infection.