3 Ways to Deal with a Scarred Tattoo, Other Than Cursing

In fact, it's relevant to any kind of scarring you're experiencing.
Publish date:
April 26, 2016
scars, discoloration, tattoos, lasers, Goldfaden MD

As someone prone to scarring from just about any skin trauma, I should have known my day would come, toying with tattoos as often as I do. Most of the ones I've gotten healed brighter and better due to my skin's affinity for holding a grudge. The scarred skin healed above the layer where the ink lives, and usually the ink shone through any scar tissue until it went away. No matter what, I always ended up with a nice tattoo, whether I followed aftercare instructions or not, and the scarring always went away after about a month.

The actual mechanics of tattooing and skin are rarely addressed, and solutions for when things go wrong, even less so. How I ended up with a scarred tattoo is equal parts artist error and my scar-prone skin.

The long and short of it: a thicker needle was used on my super-thin, dainty, precious princess hand skin, and after a month of looking perfect, discolored brown scarring showed up on just about every line. Another blow: the tattoo was crooked, and the marker used for the outline bled into the white ink.

This person had done some of my best tattoos, but their "bad day" ended up on my fucking hand, which sucked. It was embarrassing, annoying, and prompted lots of dumb questions about scarification and other body mods.

Play me that sad-trombone ditty!

But being the broadcaster I am, I talked about it with any skin professional I could find over the past year instead of hiding in shame. I tried some of their suggestions, and some I just learned about, but I found all of it relevant to any kind of scarring you're experiencing.

Frickin' Laser It

I chatted with dermatologist and scar pro Dr. Jeremy Brauer about some options for scar treatment with a pro. In the tattoo world, getting over a piece can sometimes involve a cover-up. Cover-ups are usually limited in design choice, but if you hit the forsaken artwork with a few laser sessions, you open up the doors to getting nearly anything over it.

Dr. Brauer explains that there are two kinds of laser treatments: ablative, which actually vaporizes (wounds) skin and needs recovery downtime, and non-ablative, like the PicoSure. This laser targets only pigmented particles in the skin, like scars, discoloration, and tattoo ink, and engages the skin's normal healing response to kick in and give it the boot, all without opening the dermis. It helps treat overgrown collagen without burning or damaging skin like the original laser treatments, which get faster but riskier results. Dr. Brauer says that these less-invasive lasers can take a bit longer to get you there, but they are safer and work directly on pigmentation, instead of just damaging all of the skin in one area to destroy pigment.

I didn't personally try a laser because in my case because a white-ink tattoo has the potential to turn black with laser exposure. Considering how suddenly it became discolored, I didn't even want to chance it. However, if you're dealing with traditional ink that you want to remove, or even many regular scars, a PicoSure Laser could be a great option, according to Dr. Brauer.

This method can be costly, but if you really want to get a tattoo removed, you'll probably find a way to make it happen and save some coin.

Cover It Up

After consulting with my friend and trusted tattoo artist Sheila Marcello, known for her psychedelic traditional style, about what to do with such a damaged tat (she's not the one who did it!), I decided to treat the scarring for a period of time before trying to re-tattoo, and forgo lasers altogether. It's good to know that if your scar or scarred tat isn't too hypertrophic and you don't have a predisposition to keloids, you can just get tattooed over it with a strategically positioned new piece. Sheila and I finally did a colorful distraction job to re-center the piece, and we left areas where the scarring improved alone.

Often you and the artist will use an image of your existing tattoo and their experience to decide what and where you can tattoo. Dr. Brauer added that tattoos done by less experienced artists can be easier to change with lasers or a cover-up as they are often not placed deep enough.

I have also gotten tattooed over scars in the past, but many artists rightfully advise only doing this with old and not traumatic scars. Newer scars can change and grow excess skin when exposed to new damage.

At-Home Options

Skin is skin to me, so I am all about using products not marketed for use on tattoos, which are usually pointless in my eyes. I approached this like any other discoloration or scar I have experienced, and went to work as if it was my facial skin.

After a year of a daily retinol, vitamin C, and sunscreen cycle (at their appropriate times) I started to see about a 10% reduction of scarring each month. Only then would it be OK to get tattooed over some parts, and with a thinner needle and lower-intensity machine.

One of the products I used religiously was Goldfaden MD Light Treatment. It has some controversial ingredients, but in this case of serious discoloration, arbutin precursors broke through it, whereas retinol by itself wasn't doing anything at all. If it works, it works, and I have since stopped using it all over — just on anything still showing.

My only con is that it does lighten skin around the spots too, so now I have a three-shade difference on one hand to the other. So use with care and SPF in the day for safest results.

Just like any other skin, keep scarred tattoos well-moisturized and protected from too much UV exposure, which can make discoloration even worse. I find it also helps to keep fresh tattoos as clean as possible, avoiding the sun, pools and gyms just for the first couple of days when it's essentially an open wound.

And don't get a white-ink tattoo unless you are really pale!

  • Have you ever experienced a super-scarred tattoo?
  • Who out there has tried a laser? Spill!

Cover Photo: Maria Penaloza