- Tattoo removal costs depend on the size, color and placement of the tattoo, your skin type and other factors
- The Kirby-Desai scale is a tool used to estimate how many sessions you’ll need
- Financing options can help make your treatment more affordable
With the advent of advanced laser-based technologies, tattoos no longer have to be considered permanent, however tattoo removal can be associated with a substantial price tag. Your tattoo removal cost will be determined by multiple factors, from your skin type and ink colors to which provider you choose.
Understanding Tattoo Removal
Currently, the only FDA-approved tattoo removal method is laser therapy.
Laser tattoo removal works by heating and breaking up pigmented ink beneath the skin. The pigment is fragmented into particles small enough for your white blood cells to absorb and carry to the liver, where it is recognized as waste and eliminated from the body.
Specific wavelengths of light target different ink colors, so if your tattoo is multicolored, your laser technician will employ more than one laser to fragment the ink.
Laser therapy does not usually remove 100% of the tattoo ink. Rather, enough will be eliminated for the tattooed area to be as indistinguishable as possible from the surrounding skin.
Other, less common tattoo removal methods are dermabrasion, which involves mechanically exfoliating the skin until the ink is abraded away, and surgical excision, which entails removing the tattooed skin and suturing the wound closed.
While the former will leave some ink in the skin, the latter method will completely remove an unwanted tattoo from your body.
How Is Tattoo Removal Cost Calculated?
The most important overall price factor in your tattoo removal is how many sessions will be necessary to successfully fade the ink. To calculate this, most laser technicians rely on a tool called the Kirby-Desai scale.
Shown to be 75% accurate, the Kirby-Desai scale is the industry standard for assessing the difficulty of removing a tattoo.
The number of points you’re assigned on the scale is roughly equal to the number of treatment sessions you will need. The more sessions required, the higher the cost of removing your tattoo.
Many laser tattoo removal providers offer free consultations for determining your Kirby-Desai number. Alternatively, you can use an online calculator to approximate your score.
The Kirby-Desai scale assesses six parameters:
- Skin type
- Amount of ink
For this parameter, the scale assigns between 1 and 6 points which correspond to your Fitzpatrick skin type. A Fitzpatrick skin type I is assigned one point, type II is assigned two and so on. Therefore, a person with darker skin will need more sessions than a person with light skin to remove the same tattoo.
Certain areas of the body eliminate destroyed ink particles more effectively, making tattoos in those regions easier to remove. This is due to the higher amounts of blood and lymph, the fluid that circulates through the lymphatic system to filter toxins and fight infection; they include the head, neck, abdomen, underarms and groin.
The Kirby-Desai scale assesses tattoo placement as follows:
|Tattoo placement||Kirby-Desai |
|Head or neck||1|
|Upper arms or legs||4|
|Lower arms or legs||5|
Black tattoo ink is the fastest to remove because it contains the smallest pigment particles. Therefore, fewer sessions are needed to break the particles into a size that can be absorbed and eliminated by the body.
Red pigments have the second-smallest particle size, while other vibrant colors have larger particles and require more sessions to remove.
|Primarily black with|
|Primarily black and red with other colors||3|
Amount of ink
Although it’s intuitive to think that the size of the tattoo matters, the amount of ink is more important than its size in square inches.
In the Kirby-Desai scale, the amount of ink is divided into four categories ranging from amateur to significant.
A score of amateur differs from minimal because tattoos by amateur artists tend to be placed unevenly, superficially and with less ink than professional tattoos.
|Amount of ink||Kirby-Desai |
Scarring and tissue changes
Tattoo reactions and allergies can result in changes to the local tissue, including scarring and plaque-like formations.
Tattoo pigment located in scar tissue is difficult to remove, as white blood cells cannot penetrate the dense tissue to absorb the fragmented ink.
Other skin changes commonly caused or worsened by tattoo placement, such as granulomas, allergic contact dermatitis, discoloration, psoriasis, vasculitis and atopic dermatitis, also increase the difficulty of successfully removing a tattoo.
|Scarring or |
An unwanted tattoo that’s covering another tattoo is more difficult to remove than a single layer of ink.
The cover-up is usually a larger tattoo than the original, which increases your points for size. Additionally, large amounts of dark ink are often necessary to effectively hide the older tattoo, increasing your ink points.
If your tattoo is layered, add two points to your Kirby-Desai score; if not, zero.
Tattoo Removal Cost by Inch
Rather than using the Kirby-Desai scale, some providers charge for tattoo removal by the square inch. The first square inch is usually $75–$100, with additional inches typically costing $10–$25 each session.
Other providers charge flat rates by body area, i.e., $400 per session for a half-sleeve or $100 for a knuckle tattoo.
Special Considerations for Cosmetic Tattoos
Cosmetic tattoos create specific challenges that may increase the cost of laser tattoo removal.
The ink used in these tattoos may contain nonstandardized substances that react differently to lasers, such as by becoming darker instead of lighter. These tattoos are also placed on sensitive areas such as the lips, eyelids and eyebrows.
Despite these challenges, cosmetic tattoos can still be removed, especially by combining multiple types of laser treatment.
Cost of Laser Tattoo Removal
Several types of lasers are available for tattoo removal, with some being more expensive than others.
Nonablative Q-switched lasers, including ruby, alexandrite and Nd:YAG, have long been considered the gold standard for tattoo removal.
|Type of Q-switched|
|Colors it treats|
|Alexandrite||Black, blue, green|
|ND:YAG||Black, blue, red, orange|
|Ruby||Black, blue, green|
Traditional Q-switched lasers, which have been in use for decades, are gradually being replaced by newer technologies that remove tattoos more quickly and completely.
Because they’re waning in popularity, traditional Q-switched lasers might be your least expensive tattoo removal option.
Picosecond lasers, including Nd:YAG and alexandrite, can effectively treat almost any tattoo.
They’re especially effective for green and blue pigments, which are notoriously difficult to remove.
One comparative study found Nd:YAG picosecond laser treatments to be more effective than both the Nd:YAG nanosecond and ruby laser at removing green ink. Another small study found the alexandrite picosecond laser achieved 75% clearance of blue and green ink in as few as 1-2 sessions.
Because picosecond lasers are a newer technology, they are generally more expensive per session.
Cost of Other Removal Methods
Dermabrasion tattoo removal cost ranges from several hundred up to thousands of dollars, depending on the size, placement, age and color of your tattoo.
Surgical excision, which is only practical for small tattoos, ranges from around $500 to the thousands, depending on the same factors.
To find out which method will be most cost-effective for you, consider consulting a plastic surgeon who offers multiple tattoo removal methods.
Your Location and Other Cost Variables
Factors beyond your tattoo itself will affect the cost of your tattoo removal. These include:
- Your geographic location (urban areas are more expensive than rural areas)
- Your dermatologist or plastic surgeon’s level of experience
- Possible additional fees (e.g., paid consultations and follow-ups)
Payment Plans for Tattoo Removal
Most providers offer the opportunity to pay for tattoo removal on a payment plan.
You might only be charged per treatment session until you’re satisfied with your results, thus spreading out your costs over the course of several months.
Other providers may charge a flat rate for total tattoo removal, regardless of the number of sessions needed, while offering financing options that allow you to make payments for 6 months up to 5 years.
Free and Low-Cost Tattoo Removal
Individuals who were formerly affiliated with gangs, incarcerated or victims of human trafficking often have tattoos that prevent them from finding gainful employment. The accessibility of low-cost laser tattoo removal is therefore considered essential to this population’s successful reintegration into society.
To meet this need, the nonprofit organization Jails to Jobs has compiled a directory of free to low-cost laser tattoo removal across the United States.
The first step in calculating the cost of removing a tattoo via laser is to determine by how many sessions you will need.
An approximate number can be reached using the Kirby-Desai scale, a tool that factors in tattoo position, colors, amount of ink and layering along with your skin type and the presence of scarring. Your points total is roughly equal to the number of sessions you’ll need.
Next, you will need to find out how much you’ll be charged per session. Some providers charge per square inch for tattoo removal, with an average of $75–$100 for the first square inch and $10–$25 for additional inches. Other charge flat rates for standard tattoo sizes; for instance, $400 per session for a half-sleeve.
Another cost factor to consider is the technology being used. In general, older Q-switched laser systems will cost less per treatment session, while newer picosecond versions of those lasers are more expensive.
Alternatives to laser tattoo removal are dermabrasion and surgical excision. In some cases, these options may be less expensive than laser removal, costing from $500 to several thousand dollars.
To help tattoo removal fit your budget, many providers offer financing options that will allow you to make payments over a longer period of time.
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