The Truth About Tattoo Removal Creams

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Rumor has it there is a noninvasive method for parting ways with unwanted tattoos: tattoo removal cream. 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 ditch their tattoos 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 wearer's urge "to dissociate from the past and to improve self-identity." But the process isn't a simple one.


Just as getting tattooed is a painful experience that requires you to sit through the sensation of having a sharp needle repeatedly pierce through the top layer of your skin, de-inking also requires intense effort. From laser treatments to dermabrasion, there are several procedures to make tattoos disappear, according to Andrea Catton Laser Clinic. However, these methods come at a cost — both physically and financially. Tattoo removal creams, on the other hand, claim to make ink fade with less pain and monetary burden. If it sounds too good to be true, here's what experts have to say about the formulation and potency of tattoo removal creams.

Do tattoo removal creams work?

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 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 lead to serious consequences. The controversial ingredient hydroquinone may cause inflammation and discoloration, and leave permanent, lightened markings on the applied areas. "A rare side effect of hydroquinone is a condition called exogenous ochronosis, which is a permanent darkening of the skin. The higher the concentration, the greater the risk," dermatologist and Ethnic Skin Research Institute at Howard University director Dr. Rebat M. Halder explained to The New York Times.

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). Similarly, the CARES Act made it illegal to sell over-the-counter hydroquinone without FDA approval in 2020, though many tattoo removal companies still fail to list the active ingredients in their products.


Side effects of using tattoo removal creams

If you're still determined to use tattoo removal cream on an unwanted tattoo, it's important to understand the potential repercussions of such treatments. First and foremost, many popular tattoo-fading products may not work at all. For instance, Wrecking Balm, a well-known lightening system for removing tattoos at home, has amassed thousands of disappointed customers. "This is equal to rubbing your skin with a super fine sandpaper every day [and] then putting moisturizer on it. It did nothing," wrote one Wrecking Balm reviewer.


Beyond the prospect of seeing no results, you should think twice about trying at-home tattoo removal, as these options can be downright damaging. In order to penetrate the layers of the skin, many products rely on vigorous exfoliation and irritating active ingredients. Some companies even warn of severe side effects such as bleeding and scabbing, common reactions to harsh removal agents like acids and salt peels.

Other complications associated with tattoo removal topicals may include scarring, skin discoloration, and swelling, according to Healthline. Given this, it's best to consider carefully before purchasing over-the-counter products aimed at DIY tattoo removal. At best, it's possible to see some level of lightening from active ingredients, but the risk of developing lasting side effects simply isn't worth it.


Do not try to remove your tattoo at home

So creams are out — but what about other at-home remedies to remove your tattoo? Plenty of folk treatments promise to erase old ink, but we wouldn't advise trying them. One technique, known as salabrasion, uses salt as an abrasive to scrub away the epidermis. While it might remove stubborn pigment, it can also leave nasty wounds and permanent scars or keloids in its wake. According to research published in the Archives of Dermatology, more than half of the study participants who used salabrasion to remove tattoos were left with "some degree of scarring and hypopigmentation."


As detailed by Healthline, other supposed DIY tattoo removal solutions include sand, lemon juice, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid. The first two approaches can lead to rashes and other skin issues, doing more harm than good. Meanwhile, the latter options, while useful for exfoliation, can't reach past the epidermis. Though it can be difficult to deal with old linework you're sick of seeing every day, hasty, at-home removal methods just aren't the answer.

Effective alternatives for tattoo removal

Although more painful, effective methods of removing tattoos are laser surgery and surgical excision performed by medical professionals (per Healthline). 

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 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.