Tattoos are placed for different reasons. A technique for tattoo removal which produces selective removal of each tattoo pigment, with minimal risk of scarring, is needed. Nonspecific methods have a high incidence of scarring, textural, and pigmentary alterations compared with the use of Q-switched lasers. With new advances in Q-switched laser technology, tattoo removal can be achieved with minimal risk of scarring and permanent pigmentary alteration.
There are five types of tattoos: amateur, professional, cosmetic, medicinal, and traumatic. Amateur tattoos require less treatment sessions than professional multicolored tattoos. Other factors to consider when evaluating tattoos for removal are: location, age and the skin type of the patient.
Treatment should begin by obtaining a pre-operative history. Since treatment with the Q-switched lasers is painful, use of a local injection with lidocaine or topical anaesthesia cream may be used prior to laser treatment. Topical broad-spectrum antibacterial ointment is applied immediately following the procedure.
Three types of lasers are currently used for tattoo removal: Q-switched ruby laser (694nm), Q-switched Nd:YAG laser (532nm, 1064nm), and Q-switched alexandrite laser (755nm). The Q-switched ruby and alexandrite lasers are useful for removing black, blue and green pigments. The Q-switched 532nm Nd:YAG laser can be used to remove red pigments and the 1064nm Nd:YAG laser is used for removal of black and blue pigments.
The most common adverse effects following laser tattoo treatment with the Q-switched ruby laser include textural change, scarring, and pigmentary alteration. Transient hypopigmentation and textural changes have been reported in up to 50 and 12%, respectively, of patients treated with the Q-switched alexandrite laser. Hyperpigmentation and textural changes are infrequent adverse effects of the Q-switched Nd:YAG laser and the incidence of hypopigmentary changes is much lower than with the ruby laser. The development of localized and generalized allergic reactions is an unusual complication following tattoo removal with the Q-switched ruby and Nd:YAG lasers.
Since many wavelengths are needed to treat multicolored tattoos, not one laser system can be used alone to remove all the available inks and combination of inks. While laser tattoo removal is not perfect, we have come a long way since the advent of Q-switched lasers. Current research is focusing on newer picosecond lasers, which may be more successful than the Q-switched lasers in the removal of the new vibrant tattoo inks.
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