It's embarrassing. A different design would look better. Your last three girlfriends have dumped you because "Nikki" is still emblazoned on your bicep. For whatever reason, you've decided you've had enough of your tattoo. Here's what you need to know to banish it into history.

BEWARE OF OLDER TECHNIQUES. Dermabrasion (and salabrasion, which uses salt) sands down the skin over the tattoo until the ink is rubbed away. This sort of method, explains Ross VanAntwerp of the Maryland Laser Center, is "really not much more sophisticated than it was 5,000 years ago when the Egyptians did it." Acid, sometimes used to eat away at tattoo pigment, also can corrode the skin, potentially causing serious scarring. And surgical removal of small tattoos is possible, but the bigger the slice, the more likely it will heal badly.

Of all possible removal techniques, laser removal is considered the safest and least painful. While other methods may take out the tattoo, they also take out layers of skin. Lasers target the pigment, leaving the surrounding skin pretty much intact, if irritated. Different types and wavelengths target different colors, breaking up the pigment and leaving the body's natural healing mechanisms to flush out the ink.

CHECK OUT YOUR DOCTOR. Before committing, schedule a consultation and view before and after photos of the doctor's work. Both VanAntwerp and Robert Adrian of the Center for Laser Surgery in Washington also suggest asking whether the doctor owns or rents his lasers. Renters, VanAntwerp says, "may not have the same depth of experience."

Adrian recommends going to someone "who has all the tattoo lasers [for different colors] so you don't get incomplete removal."

EXPECT TO SPEND TIME. It typically takes at least six to eight treatments to remove a professionally done tattoo (homemade ones usually come out quicker, in two to four visits). And certain colors may require more. Black and dark blue are the easiest colors to remove, while shades of brown, white, pink, light blue and some greens can be stubborn.

A large or complex tattoo, or one where the ink is deep, may require more visits. These sessions may each last only a few minutes, but weeks of healing must follow, meaning the whole process can take six months or more.

AND MONEY. At $100 to $400 per treatment, it costs a lot more to get a tattoo removed than it did to get it put on in the first place. And this isn't the sort of procedure where you want to go for the bargain-basement option. (The lasers are "not idiot-proof," VanAntwerp says.)

PREPARE FOR SOME RISK -- AND PAIN. Even when you're under the best care, laser treatments can result in scarring, skin texture changes or incomplete removal. And it's probably going to hurt about as much as getting the tattoo did. Adrian describes a "pinprick sensation" during the procedure.

Topical creams can help ease the discomfort, and in a few cases, localized injections may be used to numb the area. But the bottom line, says Adrian, is that "the best way to get rid of a tattoo is not to get it in the first place."

Emily Messner

Want more information? Check out people.howstuffworks.com/tattoo-removal.html, an accessible primer on tattoo removal.

Need advice on how to do something? Send your questions to howto@washpost.com.

It's not easy, but there is a fairly safe way to erase ink-based indiscretions.