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Can you lighten a black tattoo?


Yes, it is possible to lighten a black tattoo, but the process can be challenging. While laser tattoo removal is considered the gold standard for lightening tattoos, it works best on bold colors like black. However, completely removing a dark tattoo requires multiple treatments over several months or years. Other methods like dermabrasion or salabrasion can also lighten black tattoos to a certain extent. With realistic expectations and patience, you can successfully fade unwanted black tattoos.

How Does Laser Removal Work on Black Tattoos?

Laser removal uses short, concentrated pulsating beams of light to break up the tattoo pigment into tiny fragments. The body’s immune system then gradually flushes out these particles over several weeks.

Q-switched lasers that produce nanosecond pulses specifically target and shatter black, blue, and dark green pigments. The commonly used wavelengths effective on black ink are:

  • 532 nm Nd:YAG laser
  • 650 nm red laser
  • 694 nm ruby laser
  • 755 nm Alexandrite laser
  • 1064 nm Nd:YAG laser

During each session, the laser only destroys a fraction of the ink. Multiple successive treatments spaced 4-6 weeks apart allow the body to safely absorb and excrete the fragmented pigment between sessions. This gradual approach reduces the risk of scarring and unwanted side effects.

With each pass, the black tattoo will progressively get lighter. While complete ink removal is possible with consistent treatments, most people aim to fade it enough so a cover up tattoo can be done. On average, professionally done black tattoos require 6 to 10 sessions for optimal lightening. Homemade and traumatic tattoos may take fewer sessions.

What Factors Affect Success in Lightening Black Tattoos?

The location, age, and depth of the black tattoo impact how easily it can be lightened. Here are some factors that influence success:

Factor Effect on Lightening
Location on the body More sessions needed for tattoos on areas with slower ink clearance like hands, feet, fingers, toes.
Amount of ink deposited Light and thin lines require fewer sessions than dense, thick black shading.
Amateur tattoos Faster to remove as ink is unevenly deposited.
Professional tattoos Longer to lighten as ink placed uniformly under top layer of skin.
Age of tattoo Newer tattoos (less than 2 years) fade quicker as ink not fully settled.
Skin type The natural clearance through the lymph nodes can vary.
Layering Lightening takes longer if tattoo has been redone over an older one.

What Are Realistic Expectations?

While clinics market tattoo removal as highly effective, be prepared for the following:

  • Complete eradication of a black tattoo is difficult. Some residual pigment will likely remain even after 10+ sessions.
  • It takes time. Lightening happens gradually over several treatments spaced weeks or months apart. Allow at least 6 months for noticeable improvement.
  • Multiple treatments are needed for significant fading. On average, 6-12 sessions or more may be required.
  • There is a possibility of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation, especially in darker skin tones.
  • Not all ink clears at the same rate. Part of the tattoo may lighten quicker than other parts.
  • Some areas may be resistant to fading if there is excess scarring or fibrosis.

What Precautions Should Be Taken Before Laser Sessions?

Since laser focuses an intense beam of light on the skin, patients must avoid sun exposure, tanning, or photosensitizing drugs before and after treatment. The skin needs to be paler than the pigment for the best results.

The doctor may request patients to:

  • Stay out of the sun for 4-6 weeks pre-treatment.
  • Use sunscreen diligently.
  • Stop chemical exfoliation and products that thin the skin.
  • Avoid plucking, waxing or electrolysis for 4 weeks before.
  • Discontinue retinoids and herbs like St John’s Wort.
  • Stop smoking for 1 week before and after.
  • Avoid alcohol intake for minimally 48 hours pre- and post-treatment.

Proper prep and aftercare reduce the chances of complications and maximize the effectiveness of each session.

What Aftercare Is Vital Post Laser Treatment?

The treated area must be properly cleaned and protected while the skin heals. Follow these essential aftercare steps:

  • Cool the area with an ice pack wrapped in cloth for 10-15 minutes to provide relief and minimize swelling.
  • Gently clean with water and an antimicrobial soap.
  • Apply a thin coat of antibiotic ointment like Polysporin to prevent infection.
  • Cover with non-stick gauze or bandage.
  • Avoid sun exposure until fully healed.
  • Use sunblock with SPF 30 or higher on the treated skin for at least 6 weeks.
  • Do not pick or scratch the scabs that form.
  • Avoid swimming, hot baths, and sweaty exercise until healed.
  • Follow up with your clinician as recommended.

Proper wound care after each session minimizes the risks and assists in optimal fading.

What Are the Possible Side Effects?

Some pain, redness, and swelling are expected after laser tattoo removal treatment. Other potential side effects include:

  • Blistering – Fluid-filled blisters may develop and last for days or weeks.
  • Crusting – Hard scab formation before the skin heals.
  • Infection – Bacterial infection can occur if aftercare is inadequate.
  • Scarring – Scars may form due to poor energy settings or repeated blistering.
  • Hypopigmentation – Skin can remain lighter than the surrounding area.
  • Hyperpigmentation – Dark patches may occur, especially in darker skin tones.
  • Allergic reaction – Some people may be allergic to the gel, antiseptic or dressing used.

See your doctor promptly if you experience any concerning symptoms like oozing, increased swelling or redness. Report any rashes, hives or problems breathing, as you may need emergency care for anaphylaxis.

What Are the Benefits of Laser Removal Over Other Methods?

Laser treatment offers some advantages compared to other tattoo lightening techniques like dermabrasion or salabrasion:

  • Lasers penetrate deeper into the skin to shatter pigment more effectively.
  • The high intensity beams target and break up inks with color specificity.
  • Less risk of scarring since the epidermis remains largely intact.
  • Minimally invasive compared to ablative methods that destroy the outer layers of skin.
  • More predictable results over time as each session gradually fades the tattoo.
  • Allows better control and precision over which areas to treat.
  • Treatments can be done years after a tattoo without reduced efficacy.

For large or densely packed black tattoos, laser has a higher success rate in significantly lightening the pigment when done correctly.

What Results Can Be Expected with Each Session?

With each successive laser session spaced 4-6 weeks apart, black tattoos progressively fade as the fragments of ink are removed from the body. Typically:

  • After 1 session, only subtle lightening may be noticeable.
  • After 3 sessions, about 25% fading can be expected.
  • After 5 sessions, around 50% of the black pigment can be removed.
  • After 8 sessions, approximately 75% of the ink may be gone.
  • After 10+ sessions, 90% or greater reduction in blackness should be achieved.

However, some residual pigment often remains, leaving a faint shadow. Having realistic expectations of the gradual lightening helps in planning out the removal process over months.

How Does Laser Therapy Compare to Other Lightening Options?

Other modalities that dermatologists use to potentially lighten black tattoos include:

Method How It Works Pros Cons
Dermabrasion A wire brush wheel or burr is used to abrade outer skin layers. – Minimal scarring when done properly.
– Enhances skin penetration of bleaching creams.
– Local anesthetic injection needed.
– Increased infections risk.
– Slower than laser removal.
Salabrasion Saline soaked gauze is used to abrade and debride epidermis. – Simple and quick office procedure. – Causes bleeding and extensive crusting.
– Higher risk of scarring.
Cryosurgery Liquid nitrogen applied to frost and destroy pigmented skin cells. – Some lightening of superficial inks. – Blistering, ulceration, and hypopigmentation.
Ablative Lasers High intensity CO2 or Erbium lasers vaporize top layers of skin. – Removes ink in superficial dermis. – Significant pain and lengthy healing.
– Higher risk of scarring.

For larger or darker tattoos, Q-switched laser removal remains the gold standard. However, a combined approach may be used to speed up the lightening process in some cases.

Can You Get Laser Therapy at Home?

While clinic based Q-switched lasers remain the most effective standard, devices designed for at-home use are now entering the market. These include:

  • The PicoSure Laser recently gained FDA approval for home use under supervision of a doctor.
  • The Revlite SIMPLE Laser is another lower intensity Q-switched Nd:YAG laser to reduce tattoos.
  • The original PicoWay laser is adapted to a handheld device called the PicoWay Resolve for home treatment.
  • Spectra which uses nanosecond Nd:YAG technology for pigment removal at home.

However, experts advise caution when using home laser devices:

  • Can only treat small tattoos due to lower intensity output.
  • Multiple repeated treatments needed for minimal success.
  • Higher likelihood of adverse effects due to incorrect use.
  • Difficult to target ink depth effectively.
  • Ongoing supervision of a dermatologist is highly recommended.

For larger or darker black tattoos, in-office laser therapy remains the safest and most effective option. Home devices may be an alternative only for very minor tattoos.

What Steps Can Maximize Success of Laser Tattoo Removal?

To increase your chances of optimally lightening black tattoos through laser therapy, consider these helpful tips:

  • Realistic outlook – Complete eradication may not happen. Focus on significantly lightening it.
  • Reputable clinic – Choose an experienced facility with the latest Q-switched lasers.
  • Licensed professional – Only a doctor or certified laser technician should perform the procedure.
  • Optimal timing – Begin when tattoo is fully healed, ideally within 1-2 years of getting it.
  • Proper prep – Follow pre-care guidelines to pale the skin before each session.
  • Gradual approach – Multiple treatments spaced weeks apart for safe fading.
  • Adequate aftercare – Carefully clean and protect it while healing.
  • Sun protection – Use sunscreen diligently between treatments.
  • Healthy lifestyle – Quit smoking, stay hydrated, eat clean to boost results.

With multiple successive treatments over time and proper care, laser therapy can successfully lighten unwanted black tattoos.


While completely removing a black tattoo down to blank skin is challenging, laser therapy makes significant lightening possible. Modern Q-switched lasers target and shatter the dark pigment particles effectively. Realistic expectations along with appropriate aftercare and sun protection can optimize the fading process over successive treatments. For large or dense black tattoos, laser removal remains the gold standard method if done correctly by a reputable provider. With patience and perseverance, undesirable black ink can be successfully lightened to become less noticeable or ready for a cover up tattoo.