Lasers have been used to remove tattoos since the 1970s. The lasers first used for tattoo removal were argon and carbon dioxide lasers. Neither of these lasers were “pulsed,” which means the skin was constantly exposed to the heat from these lasers.
As a result of this, argon and carbon dioxide lasers almost always left scars and rarely removed the tattoo completely.
Over the last 50 or so years, laser technology has changed. Modern laser tattoo removal technology uses pulsed lasers, which flicker and scatter, so less energy and heat is sent into the skin at once.
Modern lasers are significantly less likely to leave scars than their predecessors.
Why are there different types of lasers used for laser tattoo removal?
Not all lasers are as effective at removing certain ink colors. To better understand why this is, we need to consider color from a simple scientific perspective of light.
Color is simply how we perceive light waves that enter through our eyes. Each color on the visible light spectrum has a certain wavelength, and certain objects either absorb or reflect colors.
The visible light spectrum is made up of the following colors, each of which corresponds to a wavelength interval (measured in nanometers, abbreviated as nm):
- Red: 700–635 nm
- Orange: 635–590 nm
- Yellow: 590–560 nm
- Green: 560–520 nm
- Cyan: 520–490 nm
- Blue: 490–450 nm
- Violet: 450–400 nm
(Note that black is the absence of light and isn’t on the visible light spectrum, whereas white is all light combined.)
The color an object reflects is the color we see. For example, a granny smith apple (a green apple) absorbs red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, and violet wavelengths but reflects green. That’s why granny smith apples look green to us.
So with laser tattoo removal, you need to have a laser emit light on the proper wavelength. Some light wavelengths from emitted lasers are not as effective on some ink colors than others.
Depending on the inks used in your tattoo, you may need to undergo removal with more than one kind of tattoo removal laser.
Types of lasers used for tattoo removal
There are two main sub-categories of lasers used today: Q-switched lasers and picosecond lasers. Q-switched lasers make up the majority of tattoo removal lasers, and each Q-switched laser subcategory is best used for certain inks and situations.
Picosecond lasers are newer than Q-switched lasers and are effective on more ink colors at once, including a few colors that are more difficult to remove.
Q-switched ruby laser
The Q-switched ruby laser was the first laser specifically developed for removing tattoos, and is most effective at removing black, blue, and green tattoo inks. It’s a very powerful laser, so it should be used sparingly, or at least be in expert hands, because using this laser too much can discolor the skin and create blotches on darker skin tones.
Q-switched alexandrite laser
The Q-switched alexandrite laser is considered the weakest of all Q-switch laser. Like the Q-switched ruby laser, it only really works well on darker ink colors. But that doesn’t mean that this laser is useless. Because it’s weaker than the others, it’s not very likely to change skin color or create unwanted spots or blotches, which makes it a good option for people with darker skin.
Q-switched Nd:YAG laser
The Q-switched Nd:YAG laser is the best option for darker skin colors, as it uses near-infrared light, which melanin — the pigment in skin that adds color — does not absorb.
This laser can operate at two different wavelengths, so it can attack both dark-colored inks as well as brighter colors, such as red, orange, and yellow. The laser that can remove the brighter colors may be referred to as the Q-switched frequency-doubled Nd:YAG laser.
Last but certainly not least is the Picosecond laser, which emits rapid bursts of light in a trillionth of a second. It is most effective on most ink colors: black, green, blue, yellow, orange, and purple. However, there have been reports of the surrounding skin changing color, especially in patients with darker skin.
Which lasers would work best to remove my tattoo?
That isn’t a question that this blog post alone can answer. There are so many different factors that go beyond ink color and laser types when considering the most effective options for tattoo removal.
At Dr. Ink Eraser, we can give you a general idea of the lasers your tattoo may require, as well as an estimate of how many removal sessions you may need to finally remove that unwanted tattoo.
To get your estimate, contact us today to schedule a consultation. We look forward to helping you review your tattoo removal options.