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Cultural tribal tattoo design on leg being examined on a couch

Why are tattoos so hard to remove if skin is supposed to shed?

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Are you ever curious why tattoo ink is able to stay in the skin for so long? And, if skin sheds, why are tattoos so hard to get rid of? More importantly, how can laser tattoo removal work today without surgery, chemicals or skin abrasion?

Below, we answer these mysteries, and more!

You can also book a consultation for Vancouver tattoo removal at our Surrey clinic. We’d be happy to answer more of your questions in person!

CALL / TEXT 604 580 2464

Tattoos use a clever ‘trick’ to stay inside your skin

Tattoos are an ancient art form. They are intended to last forever. And, they ‘ve been successful so far. Albeit, humans have caught up with nature on this one!

The way tattoos work is that they embed ink deep within your skin – far deeper than the epidermis (top layer of skin), which is what sheds. Tattoo ink is purposefully placed, using a small needle, into the dermis layer of the skin. Plus, modern tattoos are injected at 50 – 3000 times per minute (that’s a lot of pigment for high density dispersion!). 

The dermis is where your nerves, glands, blood vessels and hair follicles are. But guess what? It’s also where your immune system does its job (with lymph nodes). 

When someone is punching several holes into your skin (i.e. ink needling), your body’s natural response is to start healing those holes. It not only wants to ‘close up’ those injuries, it also wants to get rid of foreign invaders. In this case, the foreign invaders are the dye particles. 

Now, the above mechanisms are how most healing takes place. But tattoos have a ‘trick up their sleeve.’ In a sense, they ‘fool’ your immune system.

Part of the healing process after dye is punched into your body, is the delivery of macrophages (you know, white blood cells). Macrophages are designed to ‘eat up,’ break down, then release the ‘bad stuff’ that’s been put into your body. In other words, foreign invaders (like dye particles). Macrophages deliver that ‘bad stuff’ to the lymphatic system, which then expels it. Thus, in a normal situation, foreign invaders should be excreted out of your body (through the toilet business, yes). 

But, when macrophages reach the area where pigment has been injected and ‘sucked in’ to your skin, some of them ‘swallow up’ ink particles that are far too big for their liking. Since the ink particles are so big, macrophages can’t dispel them like usual, through the lymphatic system. Their solution is to then stay at the original site of the injury. So guess what? The ink stays too.

Nonetheless, over time, your body’s macrophages are replaced. This sends some ink particles away for disposal, but not all. That’s why tattoos do fade as the years go by. But not very quickly.

Other ink gets absorbed by fibroblasts in your dermis, and stays there too. 

A excellent explainer video on this subject is one made by TED Ed:

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But then…why do some tattoos fade more than others?

Technically, all tattoos fade over time. This is because of the way macrophages die out, and are replaced by your immune system, as described above. So, the older your tattoo, the quicker it can be removed. But, “quick” is relative in this sense. We’ll explain:

The rate at which tattoos fade can have to do with the quality of the tattoo, and sometimes, your lifestyle too.

You see, amateur tattoo artists using low-quality ink will not be able to make a tattoo as ‘permanent’ as it’s intended to be. The ink can get distributed at different degrees of depth in the skin, rather than being uniformly placed. And, remember, it’s the ink that reaches the dermis layer that stays put. The more shallowly the ink resides in the skin, the more likely it will fade away as your skin sheds.

There is an exception to this rule, however.

If we go by the above logic alone, we’d assume that parts of our body with thinner skin would make tattoo fading more likely. For example, your hands and feet. But this is not the case, since blood flow to these areas is limited. That affects your immune system’s ability to do its job. It can’t deliver macrophages as effectively to those extremities, as it can on other body parts. This is why tattoo removal on those areas can take longer.

The other thing is that modern, high quality tattoo inks are designed to be as pure as possible. That is, they contain as much pigment as possible. They are dense with colour. They are also made at a specific thickness for liquidity release and vibrance. In short, their potent chemistry helps them stay in the skin.

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What are effective tattoo removal techniques, if tattoos are so hard to get rid of?

In the past, the only ways to remove a tattoo were harsh. Doctors would have to either:

  • Use strong dermabrasion to remove the skin.
  • Use strong dermabrasion followed by rubbing the area with salt (called salabrasion).
  • Use a chemical to dissolve the skin.
  • Use heat to destroy the skin.
  • Use cryotherapy on the skin.

It goes without saying that the above techniques were not only painful, but left a scar.

These days, thankfully, we have laser tattoo removal

Laser tattoo removal works by breaking down ink particles, through light energy.

Lasers are effective because they deliver a specific wavelength of light to the dermis, where tattoo ink resides. The light energy heats up the ink, and destroys the ink particles. You can think of it like breaking a boulder apart into smaller and smaller pieces.

When the ink particles become smaller, they can be released out of their ‘trapped’ position in the macrophages. Then, they can finally be dispelled through the lymphatic system, and ‘eaten up’ by macrophages (and other phagocytes). Or, they can even come out of your skin topically (in a process called “transepidermal elimination”). Ultimately, scientists aren’t exactly sure where the ink goes, or how it is removed by your body after laser treatments. But, it is.

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Colour matters when it comes to tattoo removal

Now, when it comes to effective tattoo removal with lasers, there are still going to be further indicators of how quickly the tattoo ink can be removed.

Since it is the pigments (i.e. colours) that absorb the laser light, it follows that black-ink tattoos are the easiest to remove.

Yellow and white ink can be tricky, but not impossible to remove, as long as the right type of laser is used, with the right settings (always go to a medically-run clinic for tattoo removal!)

Then, there are colours like red, orange and pink, which can change colour or darken with laser tattoo removal. Again, a good, modern laser should be used (look for ‘picosecond’ laser tattoo removal).

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The type of ink pigment in a tattoo determines how long tattoo removal will take

While all tattoos are eligible for laser removal, it’s important to know that the more pigment (i.e. colour) that has been placed in your skin, the longer it will take to remove. 

To add to the problem, tattoo inks can be made from a variety of materials. It is like the ‘Wild Wild West’ when it comes to this type of product. They can contain everything from witch hazel, crushed flowers, glycerine, propylene, ethanol, carbon black, iron oxide, titanium dioxide, cobalt, nickel, chromium and more. Basically, anything that works – even carcinogenic materials. 

So, without knowing exactly what was put into the ink that was used on your skin, it’s hard to say what the outcome will be of your laser tattoo removal treatments. Some of these chemicals can cause adverse reactions when ‘mixed’ with a laser light beam. Some can also take longer to break down with lasers. That leaves us unable to predict the number of treatments required for tattoo removal with a laser.

And, to be honest, many tattoo artists won’t know what their inks are actually composed of. It’s a trust-based business.

That said, remember that faded, older tattoos could contain less ink, and may be easier to remove.

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Location and immunity can affect your response to laser tattoo removal

To reiterate what we mentioned above, another factor in how well tattoos can be removed is with their location. If they are near your extremities, such as below the knee, they can be harder to remove. This is because blood doesn’t flow as easily to those areas. As a result, the immune system can not get rid of the ink particles as quickly.

If you smoke, your immune system can be compromised, making laser tattoo removal a longer process for you.

Finally, if you are exposed to the sun a lot, you may have more natural tattoo fading than others. This is because the sun may be affecting your skin immunity (but not in a good way!). Again, if your tattoo is already faded, it may be easier to remove with a laser.

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Modern, laser tattoo removal in Vancouver is now available!

We are a highly experienced, Vancouver laser tattoo removal clinic (in Surrey). If you’re looking to have a tattoo removed, we encourage you to visit us for a consultation. We’ll be able to give a price estimate based on the size, colour and area of your tattoo. 

We use the most up-to-date picosecond lasers, which are much faster at tattoo removal than the Q-switch lasers, which many other clinics use out there.

If a tattoo has been bothering you, there are now viable options to get rid of it, without severe side effects.

CALL / TEXT 604 580 2464

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