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November 25, 2022 14:00

The history of tattoo removal. Here’s how we went from salt to lasers.

Tattoo Removal

How were tattoos removed before lasers? What is the oldest form of tattoo removal? Learn the history of laser tattoo removal and how it came to be.

Tattoos have been around for centuries. According to an article written by Cate Lineberry for the Smithsonian museum, tattoos date back to Ancient Egypt at around 2000 B.C when some of the first mummies of that time were discovered with markings on their body. So if we’ve been tattooing for centuries, chances are we’ve been trying to remove them for a while, too.

One of the first tattoos ever discovered on this Egyptian mummy show a drawing of a tiny bull and sheep. Image credit BBC.

So how were tattoos removed before lasers?

  • Salt

    Yep, good old fashioned salt. More specifically, salabration defined by the Tattoo Health “a salt solution is applied and vigorously rubbed over the skin to sand the uppermost layers away.” The method was painful, and depending on how deeply set the ink was into the skin, showed varying results.

  • Chemical peels

    This method used an acid-based solution to penetrate deeper and peel off the inked skin. They were often made with a mix of things from garlic, lemon to tannic acid and silver nitrate.

  • Surgical excursion

    Maybe the most gruesome method of all, this technique would cut away at the skin removing the tattooed area completely. It was messy, and highly prone to infection if the cut wasn’t dressed and tended to properly.

  • Dermabrasion

    The oldest form of tattoo removal was primitive dermabrasion; rubbing at the skin using some sort of rough surface like sandpaper until the layers peeled off. This technique was popular in Roman times.

Many of these techniques were quite painful, harsh on the body and riddled with risky side effects (infection, scars, burns and pigmentation to name a few) that weren’t worth the sub-par results. As science modernised, we looked for a better way to clear ink—one that had a higher success rate and far less risk.

When was laser tattoo removal invented?

How were tattoos removed over 40 years ago? In the 1960s, Theodore Mare led the development of the short-pulse lasers that would pave the way for the modern lasers we use today. Many see him as the first to invent laser tattoo removal. His laser design administered blasts of energy to break apart the ink molecules in the tattoo into small enough fragments that the body could clear out through the lymphatic system.

By the 1970s, scientists were using argon and carbon dioxide lasers, but found them too high risk to use on the body for tattoo removal.

Building off of Mare’s work, the Q-Switched ruby laser laser did its first test in Scotland in the 1980s, but wasn’t as effective on darker skin tones. According to Tattoo Health, “the heat is produced by these lasers and the skin's layers are penetrated at various depths, [so] there are some side effects to consider.”

Work continued on the Q-Switched laser and by 1991 it was used successfully in the US and celebrated for its results. It was around this time that laser tattoo removal became popular. Different iterations of the Q-Switched showed promising results on certain ink colours. For example, the Q-switched Nd:YAG laser worked well on red and orange pigments whereas the Q-switched Alexandrite laser was superior at removing blue, black and green. Despite the innovation, side effects like scars, blisters, pigmentation and pain were all common. Treatment also took many sessions, often spread out as the skin needed significant time to heal.

In 2012, the very first PicoSure laser was approved by the FDA and rivaled the Q-Switched with a smaller spot size, shorter energy bursts and less sessions needed, but it still had a risk of skin damage.

Could there be another way?

How are tattoos removed today?

Everything changed in 2020 when the LightSense™ laser system revolutionised the game. The technology focuses as much on removal results as it does on protecting the skin in the process. The laser uses controlled, lower energy to effectively breakdown ink in tattoos—but not at the expense of damaging the skin. Paired with a miniscule beam size and an accurate scanning system, the laser is able to pinpoint the tattoo more effectively and administer energy only to the areas that need it. Less damage means people can come back more often, as quick as every 2-3 weeks, and see faster removal results.

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“It was almost pain-free I’d say,” said NAAMA client Jane. “It was really comfortable. You come in and it’s really professional, really efficient… it’s so quick.” Jane is seeing great results on her back tattoo.

Does tattoo removal have long-term effects?

It can, but choosing the right tattoo removal method will significantly lower the risk of having any long-term side effects. We suggest avoiding any at-home methods and seeking out a skin-safe tattoo removal technology like the LightSense™ laser system.

According to Dr Fiona Warsop, trained consultant that studied medicine at the University of Nottingham, “side effects are very uncommon. You may have some redness or swelling around the area, and some people experience temporary changes to their skin’s pigment, but it's unlikely for the majority of people.”

If you’re wondering, what about scarring? Fiona says you’ll be in good hands too.“It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get scarring with the LightSense™ laser system,” Fiona says. “The beauty of this technology is that it eliminates tattoo ink whilst minimising damage to the surrounding tissue.”

Fiona goes on to say that, “it’s worth noting, though, that sometimes ink has been hiding damage caused to the skin during the initial tattooing process, so just be mindful that removing your tattoo sometimes reveals this.”

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