The Truth About Tattoo Removal Creams

There's a story behind every tattoo. Ink can be in celebration of an achievement, a commemoration of loss, an artistic expression, or the result of ill-thought-out decision-making. While the reasons for wanting to get tattoos are varied, the reasons for wanting to get rid of them are a little more straightforward. Some people decide to get their tattoos removed simply because they remind them of a period they want to forget. According to a July 2008 study published in the Archives of Dermatology journal, tattoo removal stems from the tattoo wearer's urge "to dissociate from the past and to improve self-identity."

Just as getting tattooed is a painful process that requires you to sit through the sensation of having a sharp needle repeatedly piercing through the top layer of your skin, de-inking also requires intense effort. From laser treatments to salabrasion — using salt, water, and an abrasive device to rub off the top layer of skin — and dermabrasion, there are several procedures to make tattoos disappear, according to Andrea Catton Laser Clinic

However, rumor has it there is a noninvasive way to remove tattoos: tattoo removal cream. Containing bleaching agents, tattoo removal creams claim to make ink fade. If it sounds too good to be true, here's what experts have to say about the formulation and potency of tattoo removal creams.

What tattoo removal creams can and can't do

The application of topical creams cannot completely erase your tattoos. According to LaserAll, tattoo removal creams contain active ingredients like trichloroacetic acid (TCA), which exfoliates the skin's outer layer, and hydroquinone, a type of bleaching agent that whitens the area with the tattoo. These creams can only peel away the top layer of your skin, the epidermis. But because tattoo ink often penetrates the inner layer of the skin called the dermis, applying these creams can only help the tattoo to fade at best. 

Plus, the bleaching and peeling properties in tattoo removal creams can generate some serious side effects, especially for those with darker skin. Hydroquinone can cause inflammation, discolor skin, and leave permanent, lightened markings on the applied areas.

Pointing out that TCA is only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for in-office usage by medical professionals, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Robyn Gmyrek told Byrdie that attempting to use any product containing it at home might spell trouble. In fact, according to FDA dermatologist Dr. Markham Luke, no do-it-yourself tattoo removal creams have been approved yet (via FDA).

Effective alternatives for tattoo removal

Although more painful, effective methods of removing tattoos are laser surgery and surgical excision performed by medical professionals, according to Heathline

Using concentrated light waves, laser surgery breaks up ink into smaller pieces, making it easier for the immune system to remove them. The length and cost of laser surgery for tattoo removal will vary depending on the size and location of the tattoo being removed. The larger and more detailed your tattoo is, the more laser sessions you will need, and the higher the total cost. Six to eight sessions may be necessary for most people to remove their tattoos completely (via Dermatology and Skin Cancer Institute).

A treatment that only takes one session is surgical excision. According to Connect by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, surgical excision involves carving out your tattoo with a scalpel while the skin around it is numb from anesthesia. However, this procedure may result in a visible scar and pain once the anesthetic wears off, and thus is more suitable for smaller tattoos. 

There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all treatment when it comes to tattoo removal. The size, details, and the type of ink are all factors that play into the success of the treatment. If you are interested in tattoo removal, speak with your doctor to find out which treatment will be most effective for you.