The national average for tattoo removal cost is about $900 but depends on a lot of factors such as the location of the tattoo, your skin tone, the amount of ink used, the method the tattoo artist used, the age of the tattoo, the density of the ink, etc.
So you fell in love at college and felt the need to tattoo your lover’s name somewhere on your body because tattooing would somehow cement the relationship? You waited for years to get that fabulous tattoo only to find that you are allergic to the ink pigment? You went to your buddy’s bachelor party in Las Vegas and awoke the next morning with a sloppy, garish tattoo in a very conspicuous place? Your friend is a budding tattoo artist and you let him use your body as his practice canvas? And now you want these tattoo removed? You are not alone!
Studies show that over 50% of people who get tattoos regret getting them and want them removed. Is tattoo removal possible? Yes; but be prepared to dip into your bank account to the tune of $300 to $10,000 to get it done. It will usually cost you a lot more to remove the tattoo than it did to get it done in the first place, so think before you act! And tattoos cannot be removed in one sitting. You can expect to undergo somewhere between 3 and 20 treatments before you are satisfied. The results can be excellent but may never be completely perfect.
Have you had your tattoo for many years or was it more recently done? Did you settle for mostly black ink or did you go wild with colors? Is the tattoo small and dainty, medium sized, or huge (decorating your torso from neck to knees)? Was the tattoo done by an amateur or professional artist? All of these factors will affect the cost and success of your tattoo removal.
The best thing you can do is to consult a reputable board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon who is skilled in tattoo removal and who has experience with the different methods available. The doctor will inspect your unique tattoo, explain your options, the number of treatments it may take, and which treatment will be best for you.
But let’s get a better understanding about tattoos, the options for tattoo removal, the costs of each method and how different factors can affect the price.
Tattoo Removal Methods & Average Costs
Modern tattoos involve the injection of colored ink into the dermal layer of the skin (beneath the epidermis), resulting in permanent designs in the skin. Amateur tattoo artists use handheld needles coated with ink to prick the skin. As you can imagine, the ink pigment penetrates the skin unevenly, at varying depths. Professional artists today, on the other hand, use electric needle machines that work similar to a sewing machine by plunging the ink pigments deeper into the dermis layer of the skin, but more uniformly. It usually requires fewer treatments to remove amateur applied tattoos than professional ones.
In the past, tattoo removal was unsophisticated and patients usually ended up with scars in place of their tattoos. But advancements in modern laser technology have come to the rescue. Laser therapy is now considered the “gold standard” for tattoo removal, but other methods are available and you will find information about them below.
Laser tattoo removal – Laser treatment is the most popular and effective option today for tattoo removal, but it’s also quite expensive. A high-intensity laser light beam is used to penetrate the skin and blast the ink pigments, breaking them up into tiny particles that are then absorbed by the body. No incisions are made, there is no bleeding involved, and the surrounding skin is usually not damaged. However, if the laser has to penetrate deep under the skin’s surface, there is more chance that the laser’s heat will cause pain, blisters and/or scarring.
Each treatment session generally ranges from $100 to $750. The size, colors and location of the tattoo will determine the total number of treatments required. If you have a small tattoo the size of a quarter in black ink, you may need 3 to 5 laser treatments every 4 to 8 weeks to remove it ($300 to $1,000 total cost). However, if your tattoo is very large, you may need 15 to 20 treatments to successfully remove it ($5,000 to $15,000 or more total cost).
Factors that Determine Laser Tattoo Removal Cost
- Location of the tattoo – The laser zaps the molecules of the ink pigment to break them down and your body fat helps the process along. The best candidates for removal are tattoos on the chest, arm, legs and buttocks. If your tattoo is on a bony part of your body, e.g., ankle, finger, etc., it will be more difficult to remove and could require more treatments which will add to your cost.
- Skin tone – Do you have fair skin or a darker complexion? Tattoos on fair-skinned individuals are easier to remove than those on darker-pigmented people. The laser light targets contrast, so dark ink on fair skin will be easier to remove and require fewer treatments than dark ink on dark skin. Laser treatment can also cause hyperpigmentation (excessive color) or hypopigmentation (excessive fading) and these can be more noticeable on darker skin. Also, if the ink color is close to the skin color, it may not be possible to completely remove the tattoo. The bottom line is that more sessions will usually be necessary for darker skinned patients, resulting in higher cost.
- Ink colors – Most tattoos are done with black, blue, green, red, orange and yellow ink pigments. To effectively destroy tattoo ink, the laser targets specific light wavelengths (different wavelengths for different colors). Black pigments are small in size, easily absorb all light wavelengths, and are, consequently, the easiest to remove. Red tattoos are also relatively easy to remove. Other ink pigments are considerably larger, however, and reflect the light wavelengths, taking longer to remove. Orange, pink, yellow, purple and brown are more difficult, meaning more laser treatments and more money. Even more costly will be pastel colors such as light blue, turquoise and light green. The spectrum of colors used in your tattoo will definitely impact the cost of removal.
- Amount of ink – If your tattoo was done by an amateur artist, it probably contains less ink and does not go as deeply under the surface of the skin. It should be easier to remove and require fewer laser treatments. Professional artists use more colors of ink and can penetrate the skin more deeply. So those complex, multicolored tattoos that you paid a lot of money for will take a lot more money to remove!
- Density of ink – If you have a letter tattoo with thick outlines filled in with shading, or other shading in a design, the shading sections should take only a few laser sessions to remove. Expect to save some money if this describes your tattoo.
- Age of the tattoo – Newer tattoos are harder to remove because the colors are bold and fresh. In fact, because tattoos are so popular these days, inks have improved and artists have improved their techniques making tattoos done in the last 10 years more difficult to remove. If you’re lucky enough to have an old tattoo that has faded with time, it will take fewer laser sessions to remove it and will cost less.
- Layered tattoos – One way to cover up a bad tattoo is to get another tattoo done on top of it to hide or camouflage it. The new tattoo will have to be larger and probably darker (more ink pigment) in order to hide the older one. If you have a layered tattoo, expect more laser treatments and a higher cost.
One more thing could add to your cost of laser tattoo removal. Laser treatment is usually painless (some patients say it feels like a rubber band snapping your skin). However, if you find the treatments painful, your doctor may recommend a local anesthetic such as lidocaine. These injections will increase your cost by about $50 per injection per session.
Other Tattoo Removal Methods
Infrared Coagulation (IRC) tattoo removal – Infrared tattoo removal involves the use of non-laser infrared light to heat the pigmented area, essentially “burning” away the ink pigments, hardening blood beneath the skin and shrinking the pigmented tissue to break apart the ink. The treated area scabs over and, when the scab heals and falls off, the color goes with it. The difference between IRC and laser removal is in the light wavelengths; lasers target the visible light wavelengths while IRC targets the invisible light spectrum.
Some doctors prefer IRC to the laser method because it is quick and easy to perform, is not affected by the colors of the ink, generally takes fewer sessions to achieve good results, and they believe it will become the preferred method for tattoo removal. As with laser removal, potential complications include pigment changes to the skin and potential scarring from the burns. The burns must be treated and allowed to heal between treatment sessions. Patients who have problems with wound healing should consider IRC carefully. Small tattoos can be successfully removed in one to three IRC sessions at about $500 each, so your small tattoo would cost about $1,500 to remove.
IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) Therapy for tattoo removal – With this therapy, the skin is treated with a gel and the ink is broken up by sending intense pulses of light into the skin. To have your tattoo removed with IPL, you could pay up to $10 per pulse, so you may want to consider this method only for small tattoos. The number of sessions you need would be determined in much the same way as they are for laser therapy, with the same factors we discussed above affecting your cost. Many medical experts warn that IPL can cause significant burns, scarring and pigmentation problems when used for tattoo removal. IPL is very expensive and removal of a large, elaborate, multicolored tattoo could range from $5,000 to $20,000.
Excision of a tattoo – The tattooed skin is surgically removed under local anesthesia and either sutured to close the incision or a skin graft is placed over the area and sutured in place. This method will always leave a scar and, as with any surgical procedure, is subject to infection and other side effects. Cutting out an amateur tattoo may be more difficult because the ink pigments may have gone deeper into the skin. Excision is usually recommended for small tattoos. Costs can range from $500 to $2,500 or more depending on the size of the tattoo.
Dermabrasion for tattoo removal – Dermabrasion is a method of freezing the skin and then using a rotary tool to sand or scrape off the top layers of skin down to the pigmented cells until the tattoo is rubbed off. It is painful and can cause bleeding and scarring. If the ink from your professionally done tattoo has deeply penetrated your skin, it may be impossible to remove your tattoo completely with this method. However, dermabrasion can often be very useful for tattoos on the face, thin-skinned areas like the ankle or hand, or stubborn areas of pigment. Tattoo removal by dermabrasion will require several visits at $200 to $500 each, for a total of $600 to $2,500.
TCA Chemical Peels for tattoo removal – Applying acid to our skin seems extreme, but thousands of patients do it every day to remove fine lines, wrinkles, and acne scars on their faces. The surface of the skin is mildly burned with trichloroacetic acid (TCA), stripped away, and new skin grows in its place. In theory, the tattoo ink will break down and come to the surface, causing the tattoo to fade. You may find success with a chemical peel for an amateur tattoo that is very superficial (not too deep). Otherwise, deeper tattoos do not usually benefit from chemical peels, even if you do it repeatedly. It may take several treatments to fade your tattoo and you can expect to pay between $500 and $2,000.
Variot Tattoo Removal – This centuries old technique originally injected a tannic acid solution into the skin to cause scab formation. When the scab healed, much of the tattoo was removed along with the scab. Tannic acid was found to cause cancer, however, so modern dermatologists use a tattoo machine containing other chemicals like glycolic acid to achieve similar results. There is a risk of scarring and a faint outline of the tattoo may remain on the skin. Variot tattoo removal is significantly cheaper than laser removal but you may have to search far and wide to find someone who does it.
Tattoo fading cream – All over the internet you will find advertisements and testimonials for tattoo fading creams. Advocates claim that the tattoo will fade within a few months; however, there is no evidence that any of these creams will actually remove or completely fade your tattoo. Be cautious about these creams; many contain hydroquinone, a skin bleaching substance that is thought to cause cancer and serious skin diseases. Hydroquinone has been banned in many countries such as the European Union, Japan and Australia, and the U.S. FDA has proposed a similar ban on over-the-counter sales. Tattoo fading creams will cost in the $100 to $300 price range for a full course of treatment.
Camouflage or “cover up” with a new tattoo – It’s often possible to cover up an old tattoo with a new one and some tattoo artists specialize in this art. It does have limitations however; black and other dark colors can’t be covered with light colors. The price will be the price of a new tattoo but make sure you find a skilled tattoo artist because, once finished, it will be difficult to camouflage it again if the artist does a sloppy job!
Some of these tattoo removal methods can dramatically fade, or possibly completely erase, your tattoo. As with any other type of medical procedure, you can expect the cost of tattoo removal methods to vary from doctor to doctor and by geographic area. But consider more than the cost before you make your decision.
Make sure to thoroughly research the experience of your doctor and his/her technology. Different ink colors require different lasers; a single laser cannot do the trick. Make sure your doctor has all of the necessary lasers. If a technician will do the procedure, make sure the person is properly trained in cosmetic surgery and supervised.
So, if you’ve outgrown the tattoo of Donny Osmond on your shoulder, now may be the time to explore your options!