Old estimates suggest that about 17 percent of people who get a tattoo regret their tattoo. The most regretted tattoo is another person’s name (I wonder why?), but thankfully, we live in a day and age when tattoos are no longer truly permanent, so these regrettable mistakes can be lightened and worked over, or in some cases, removed wholly. However, tattoo removal is still by no means easy, painless, or economical – and the DIY options border on torturous, and harmful.

Does tattoo removal really work?

The most recommended and effective form of tattoo removal is laser tattoo removal. While this process has evolved substantially over the years, allowing it to target and eliminate any color of ink, it’s always generally been the same thing: a laser is used to target and break up fragments of ink in the deeper layers of the skin, where the ink is embedded. Once it’s broken up, the body itself takes care of escorting the little bits of ink out of the skin.

This works because it’s generally taking care of why tattoos exist to begin with: the size of the ink particles is usually simply too large for the body’s white blood cells to eat and get rid of, causing the ink to just stick around in the deep layers of the skin, slowly breaking down (fading) over the years. The tattoo process relies on this, and it is why ink is injected so deep into the skin (rather than being injected in the epidermis, or the top layers, which are quickly broken down and replaced over the years).

How expensive is it and how long does it take?

Laser tattoo removal is incredibly expensive. Each session can cost hundreds of dollars, and it takes anywhere from six to twelve sessions to get rid of a single tattoo, depending on its size, your skin color, and the colors used. The easiest task for laser tattoo removal is black ink on very pale skin. This is because the laser is most effective when targeting dark pigments, and when the skin is pale, the laser can do a better job. It has to be adjusted to target black colors at a lower wavelength when used on darker skin, to avoid excessive scarring or depigmentation – which means lengthier sessions.

Sessions cannot be booked back to back. The laser effectively burns the skin. This means that, much like a tattoo, it requires aftercare and time to heal. The typical waiting period between sessions is about a month, or up to eight weeks. Session after session, the intensity of the laser is reduced, meaning less pain, less damage, and less aftercare.

While it’s also the safest and most effective way to get rid of a tattoo, it still isn’t 100 percent effective or flawless. It may leave behind weird skin pigmentation, not heal properly and scar, and some people’s skin doesn’t do well with the laser. Nevertheless, it’s definitely your best bet for completely removing a tattoo. Always make sure that the person you’re booking an appointment with is a physician or dermatologist. Don’t go to an aesthetician or beautician if you can avoid it. It’s safer to work with a medical professional. Dermatologists can also safely and effectively run you through every step of the preparatory and aftercare phase, as per your tattoo, skin tone, and requirements.

Are there alternatives to laser tattoo removal?

Yeah, but there’s only one alternative that’s arguably better: getting your tattoo covered up with a bigger and better tattoo. Even then, depending on the colors you want to use, you may have to wait for your first tattoo to fade even further or book a few sessions specifically to lighten the tone of your current tattoo, so the new one can shine through properly. However, some people specifically want to regain their initial inkless skin.

Another dermatological option is a saline injection. This simply injects salt into the tattooed area. Rather than break the ink down, this pulls the ink up into portions of the skin that regularly regenerate. A scab forms above the injected area, further lifting the ink. Saline injections aren’t always effective but can work.

There are other alternatives. But I don’t consider any of them real alternatives. This is because all other forms of tattoo removal essentially try to destroy enough of the skin to get the body to attack the ink more aggressively or get all the way down to the ink itself. If the tattoo is small enough, you can probably convince a plastic surgeon to do a skin graft or to cut it out and simply suture the skin back together.

The other alternatives include chemical burns, dermabrasion, and salabrasion. Done professionally, dermabrasion can have limited success with certain cases. What dermabrasion entails is using a medical abrasive device to very rapidly ‘sand off’ layers of the skin. This definitely isn’t great, but it’s arguably less painful than the laser (although not as effective). Salabrasion uses salt on top of the sanding process, which may help lift ink particles further up the layers of the skin via osmosis. Obviously, this hurts even more, and makes you more prone to scarring.

Chemical burns might be a bit too dramatic – some creams essentially try to irritate the skin enough to mimic dermabrasion, but they are rarely as effective as professional treatment, and not approved by any government body or medical board.

What to do when my tattoo got screwed up?

Depending on how bad the screw up was, depending on how it happened, and depending on where you are, you may have a few options. The first is to negotiate a free touch-up with the same artist. If their own incompetence caused it, and it was simply a limit of their skill, then you’ll want to find another artist.

Obviously, at that point, you may feel entitled to a refund. But unless there is any indication that they could’ve done a much better job, you probably won’t get a refund. If they refuse despite it being clear that they messed up, then you can potentially seek to sue them depending on the country you live in (most consumer laws have a law that dictates a service provider must provide their services ‘with reasonable skill and care’).

If a touch-up doesn’t fix it, and you’ve already considered getting the tattoo covered up (to no avail), you can either choose an expensive tattoo removal procedure, or let it fade enough to go over it once again with a better artist and some darker colors.