Tattoo removal can be a long, arduous journey. That’s why we’re chronicling it here. Midway through the process with the PicoSure laser, our writer is fearlessly sharing her story — every scab, blister and bruise — so we can have a better understanding of how the tattoo removal process works.

Please note that this account is about tattoo removal on pale skin with the PicoSure laser. There are several types of lasers for different skin tones, and choosing a method for dark skin tattoo removal has a different set of considerations. There are tons of dark skin tattoo removal journeys chronicled on RealSelf, and one we find particularly thorough is about the excision method.

And now, tattoo removal with PicoSure. — RealSelf editors


The offender

My tattoo is the phrase “lion’s breath” in thick, all-black cursive lettering across my ribs. It’s about 9-inches long, and 1.5-inches tall. I got it in February 2013.

The artist did a bad job. I knew it immediately and never got over it despite friends’ best efforts to make me feel OK about it. The tattoo was even once mistakenly read as “livin’ large.” Ouch.


Author’s tattoo before removal process.


The research

I chose PicoSure based on four main factors:

  • The promising work it does on black ink.
  • The allure of complete removal in less sessions compared to an older model laser, albeit at a greater cost per session.
  • RealSelf user reviews.
  • Proximity to my house. There was another laser option that seemed like a good choice for me, but PicoSure was the shortest drive.


The process

I had a consultation to establish my price per visit. The nurse wanted to know how old the tattoo was. Older tattoos used different inks and needles than what they use now. Better tattoo technology = better tattoo removal. The irony!

I’m paying $375 per PicoSure session. (Find the average price of PicoSure near you.)

I did my first, second and third sessions without numbing cream. The pain is…excruciating. I have a very high tolerance for pain. As an example, I hardly flinched while getting the tattoo, though I was warned the pain factor for rib tattoos is faintworthy.

The sheer intensity of a PicoSure removal session is like nothing I can describe. I was told it’s “like holding your skin to hot bacon grease,” and I’m sorry to report it actually felt worse to me. The good news is that it’s over almost as fast as you can scream about it. It’s not an ongoing or spread-out pain. It’s a hyper-localized, searing pain, in the exact moment and at the exact spot the tiny laser zaps you.


Related: Read our tattoo removal guide


So, why no numbing cream? Rumors. I heard a rumor (from a nurse) that numbing cream gets in the way and dumbs down the laser’s effectiveness. [Ed note: On RealSelf, our doctors say that using a numbing cream your provider recommends is totally OK]. For my tattoo, one zap session took about two minutes including the pauses I asked (begged) for every 20-ish seconds. I told myself I could take a couple minutes of pain if it meant even one less session on the tail-end of this journey.

I’ve evolved my numbing stance since my third zap and will use the cream for my fourth sesh. More on that below.

I’m spacing my sessions four to six months apart. The body continues to chip away at my tattoo the whole time. Going every few weeks is like washing jeans every time you wear them. Unnecessary at best, a waste of resources at worst.


Author’s tattoo after first treatment. This is the ‘laser frost’ she talks about.

Blisters, bruising and ‘frost’

After the zap, your tattoo will likely be blanketed in “laser frost.” There’s a scientific reason for the frost, CO2 doing things under your skin. In non-science terms, frost tells you that things went as planned. Ink took a direct hit.

Frost vanishes quickly (same day), then blisters will rise over the next day or so. The blisters are gross to onlookers, but they’re surprisingly meh as far as pain goes. They last from two days to a week. They don’t pop, they diminish and flatten away. Let ’em be. It’s so satisfying to pop a heel blister from a new shoe, but this is a different blister, deeper under your skin. Leave it alone, it’s doing the job you paid for!


Author’s tattoo after two treatments.


There will be bruising in the same shape as your tattoo but bigger, but like blisters, it’s more painful to look at than to have. My bruising takes up to two full weeks to go away completely. The deep purple is gone in a few days, but the green/yellow hues stick around.

After my third zap, I had a small bit of frost at the inkiest book-ends of my tattoo. The rest of the tattoo swelled up with blisters (more like blood blisters this time, more red, less white-ish), and my nurse said, “That’s a good sign when the capillaries start breaking at the surface like that. It means your ink is really losing ground down there.”


Author’s tattoo after third treatment.


Unfortunately, I was too spazzed out from two minutes of otherworldly pain to pursue this revelation from my nurse, but I will ask about it next time.

Which is to say: I was mentally, emotionally and physically spazzed out after my third session. My nurse—who is NOT the nurse that said numbing cream gets in the way—told me she wished I would use numbing cream. I told her the rumor I heard, she swears it’s either patently false, or it’s about an old product long out of circulation.

Numbing cream costs about $50, your removal expert will call in a prescription for you, and you need to apply it about an hour before your appointment.

Stay tuned, friends. I’ll update here after my fourth appointment — and first numb one — this summer!


Have questions about tattoo removal? Ask a provider.