Pain Management

How Much Does Tattoo Removal Hurt? An Honest Patient’s Experience

A little over a year ago, I was exactly where you are: considering tattoo removal, and asking myself, “How much does tattoo removal hurt?”

Let me tell ya… a hell of a lot more than many things on the internet may lead you to believe.

When I was 20 years old, I got a sprawling tattoo across the front of my torso. Cool, right? Right?!

Ian of
Look at that idiot

I began tattoo removal eight years later, and I was really worried going into it that it was going to hurt more than what the internet had led me to believe.

And oh boy — it did.

But I keep going back, time and time again. Why? Because it’s worth it.

Before we dig in here, know this: I’m no wuss. I may be a total idiot (jury’s still out), but I definitely have an above-average pain threshold. The moment my first removal began, I knew tattoo removal was one of the most painful things I’d experienced in my life.

Maybe it’s because I have a gigantic tattoo. Maybe it’s because I didn’t prepare myself well enough mentally.

But any way around it, what I read on the internet when researching how much tattoo removal hurt before my first session was a total understatement.

I’m hoping this article provides a more accurate an honest answer for you than I got before going under the laser.

“It feels like someone snapping a rubber band against your skin”

Bulls**t. Complete and utter bulls**t.

I don’t even think most laser technicians believe this, even if it’s the answer they give when you ask them how much tattoo removal hurts.

colorful rubber bands

This might be true if you can imagine someone snapping a rubber band against your skin several times per second, and sustaining that pace for 30-60 seconds (or more) at a time. But even that doesn’t account for the heat.

Tattoo removal feels like exactly what it is — a high-powered laser shooting deep into your skin and breaking up the pigment of your tattoo. That’s not going to be a comfortable thing, no matter how you cut it.

If I had to compare it directly to tattoo application, I’d say it hurts 1.5x – 2x more than the most painful application spot during my tattoo — my sternum. So if you’ve ever had a sensitive, bony part of your body tattooed like your ribcage or sternum, multiply that by 1.5 or 2x, and I think you’ll have a pretty accurate expectation going into your first removal session.

But even though tattoo removal is considerably more painful than application, it’s important to note that it’s MUCH faster than tattoo application.

Keep In Mind that Tattoo Removal is Considerably Faster

My tattoo was a grand total of about 9 hours under the needle. Many of you reading this article have spent dramatically more time on the table than I have.

professional man with knuckle tattoos and sleeves

But my removal sessions, especially early on, were VERY fast. Maybe 10-15 minutes for the entire tattoo.

Now that I’m much later in the process, the sessions run a little bit longer — about 30 minutes for each half of my tattoo. The technicians decided to split each session into two half-sessions, to allow my immune system to do a better job getting rid of the ink, and make it so that I didn’t have hour-long removal sessions.

Granted, I’ve gone through 12 total sessions now, with at least 6-10 more to come. The grand total of time under the laser will be pretty close to the time I spent under the needle when it’s all said and done, but it will have been spread over 1.5-2 years.

30 minutes of pain at a time is pretty manageable, in my opinion.

But keep in mind that less pain may not be a good thing

I’ve had three different laser technicians at the clinic I go to. I’ve loved all of them, but I found that one technician’s treatment hurt substantially less than her coworker’s.

The next time I had the “painful” technician (for the second half of my tattoo), the results after recovery were dramatically different. Noticeably more ink had been stripped from the lower half of my tattoo (painful) than the upper half (not-so-painful).

It depends on your nature, but I’d much rather experience more pain and fewer treatments than more treatments and less pain. I just want my tattoo to be gone in as few sessions as possible.

More pain ≠ better results

In my situation, more pain DID equal better results. I was working with two very well-trained technicians that were using the same state-of-the-art technology (details on that later). But if you don’t go to a highly-rated clinic in your area, laser tattoo removal treatments can be MUCH more painful than they need to be. You can find horror stories about them all over the internet.

Gigantic back tattoo

Just to clarify, that does NOT mean you need to pay an expensive dermatologist or plastic surgeon 2-4x the going rate of other tattoo removal clinics in your area. Most of them aren’t going to do any better of a job than the certified laser technicians at other highly-rated, non-dermatologist clinics.

Just make sure that you’re getting treatments using the latest Astanza Trinity lasers (the clinic I go to uses Astanza Trinity 2.0 for my treatments) and that all of the technicians are properly certified. That way you’re getting the best laser tattoo removal money can buy.

And remember to pay attention from session-to-session: your clinic may have a rockstar technician that takes their time and helps break down more ink, just like mine does! I make it a point to request her specifically and only schedule appointments for when she’s working — you could do the same.

Pain Management Options Pre-Removal and During Removal

I didn’t have any pain management help during my first removal session. I went in for a quote and had them squeeze me in spur-of-the-moment so I didn’t have to drive all of the way home and all of the way back within the next couple of days.

How much does tattoo removal hurt? Pain pills and other options

If I’d known what was in store, I probably would have opted to buy a topical anesthetic and come back the next day.

Over-the-Counter Topical Anesthetic

The two options I’ve personally used for topical anesthetic are Hush and Aspercreme. Hush has menthol in it, so it can get kind of uncomfortable for some people when the laser technician is blowing cold air on their tattoo during treatment. If your tattoo is really small, I can see that being okay, but if you have a large tattoo, I’d recommend a menthol-free topical anesthetic like Aspercreme.

You just slather on a nice, thick coat one hour before treatment so that the lidocaine can numb your skin. Then slap some of that “Press’n’Seal” cling wrap over it (not regular cling wrap) and you’re good to go!

I’ve found that over the counter topical anesthetics like this help relieve at least 10%-20% of the pain over my first treatment. It’s just enough relief to go from, “Oh my god I’m not sure I can ever do this again,” to, “This is gonna hurt, but it’s worth it.”

Prescription Topical Anesthetic

If you’re still experiencing too much discomfort during treatment (or if you don’t even want to chance it), you can have a prescription-strength topical anesthetic prescribed by your primary care physician that’s approximately 2-3x as potent as the over-the-counter options I mentioned above.

Pain Pills (Acetaminophen)

Another way to bring yourself a little pain relief during treatment is by taking two Tylenol (acetaminophen) approximately on hour before your treatment. Be careful not to take any other kind of pain killer such as aspirin that may thin the blood. Acetaminophen is the ONLY pain pill that is recommended for tattoo removal.

Most Importantly: Relax

But the biggest help I’ve found to relieve pain during my laser tattoo removal sessions isn’t a cream or a pain pill — it’s just relaxing as much as you can.

I think our instinct is to tense up and “flex” basically our entire body in anticipation of the pain — that makes things so much worse. The most relief I’ve experienced during my tattoo removal sessions has been from putting on some relaxing music, reminding myself to relax when I get too tense, and focusing on my breathing.

If you have any experience with meditation at all, it comes in very handy during the most painful moments of tattoo removal. Even if not, just remembering to take a few deep breaths, focus on your breath, and relax as much as you can during treatment is incredibly helpful.

It’s gotten to the point now that the “mind over matter” game is kind of a fun challenge for me, albeit a painful one. You can control a lot of the pain your brain perceives just by being conscious of it, relaxing, and trying to focus your attention on something else.

I combine all of the above for my 30-35 minute sessions now (less the prescription anesthetic — that’s the only thing I haven’t tried personally). The combination of topical anesthetic + acetaminophen + meditation is an absolute game changer for how much laser tattoo removal hurts.

Laser Tattoo Removal Post-Treatment Pain Relief Options

As the intensity of the laser goes up, so does the pain. Not only during treatment, but sometimes for 2-3 days after.

laser tattoo removal machines

Once the laser intensity gets pretty high, particularly on my red ink, the burning sensation after I leave the clinic can be borderline unbearable. The tiny, single-use cold compresses they offer at my clinic are worthless for a tattoo as big as mine.

Cold Compresses

I take a 3M cold compress in an insulated bag every time I go into the clinic now. The moment I get in my car to drive home, I stuff the compress under my car’s shoulder belt and it gives me an incredible amount of relief.

Long story short: cold compresses (or even a ziplock bag of ice) can be your new best friend. Just make sure to rotate 20 minutes on/20 minutes off so you don’t risk giving yourself frostbite!

Pain Pills (Acetaminophen, Again)

If the cold compress just isn’t cutting it, you can keep taking two acetaminophen every 4-6 hours as long as you need to. That should help take the edge off, and keep you pretty pain-free for the couple of days you’re recovering.

Pain-Friendly Attire

Your choice of clothing can have a pretty big influence on your comfort levels during recovery as well. If your tattoo is somewhere that clothing touches, try to wear loose clothing that doesn’t press up against the dressed wound while its healing — especially if you have a tattoo along your waistline.

Side note: You probably don’t want to wear any clothing you care for while your wound is dressed and healing, either — the oil-based ointment you apply during recovery will destroy any piece of clothing it touches.

Remember: There’s Light at the End of the Tunnel

The most important thing to remember is that all of your discomfort should pass within 2-3 days. You may still have recovering blisters or scabs after that, but most of the pain will likely be gone before the skin completely heals.

Final Thoughts: How Much Does Tattoo Removal Hurt?

I think the most important thing when dealing with pain from tattoo removal is perspective.

The discomfort lasts a few minutes during each session, and maybe 2-3 days after each session. Using the tips and pain management strategies I shared in this article should help A LOT — it’s taken me more than a year of treatments to figure all of this out.

tattoo removal before & after — the pain of removal is worth it

Compare the pain of tattoo removal to the regret and dislike you feel every time you see your tattoo, and I think it’s a no-brainer.

Treat it like a Band-Aid and schedule your appointment. If you find yourself dreading it during the days and hours leading up to the appointment, try to keep your mind occupied/distracted so you don’t build it up too much in your mind.

At the end of the day: pain is temporary, but you’ll enjoy the results of your tattoo removal for the rest of your life.

I hope you found this article helpful! If you have any other questions about how much tattoo removal hurts, feel free to leave it in the comments below! I’ll make sure to reply ASAP.

Best of luck, and happy zapping!