Throughout the tattooed community, there are plenty of tattoo “fails,” regrets, and “worn” art. While these instances call for a “magic cream” that can scrub away unwanted ink, especially when laser treatment is incredibly painful and expensive, there isn’t an easy topical solution.
However, a string of "tattoo removal creams" have emerged over the past few years, claiming the capability to make your unwanted work disappear.
At best, they are miraculous. At worst, they are a scam.
“When you get a tattoo you are basically instilling large globs of pigment in your skin that your little Pac-Man cells called macrophages can not engulf and take away," said Bruce Robinson, MD, and Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology in Northwell Health at Lenox Hill Hospital.
The clinical instructor of dermatology said, “The size of the pigment makes it difficult to take the pigment away unless made into smaller sizes by a laser.”
Since your tattoo ink is deposited into the layer below the surface, and protected through skin’s surface layer, it’s hard to remove.
This is why laser-removal is revolutionary. The laser transforms the pigment into smaller globs that your macrophages can transport away.
So, do they actually work?
While these creams have been around for at least 10 years, they haven't gained popularity from tattoo artists.
"Most tattoo removal creams claim to work by bleaching or peeling away the epidermis, or the top layer of skin,” said cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology.
However, as the tattoo ink is generally deposited into the deeper layer of the skin, they are unlikely effective at completely removing the tattoo ink."
This is why, alongside tattoo artists, dermatologists oppose these “miracles creams.”
In order for a tattoo removal cream to truly penetrate the epidermis, its formula would need to be contain a bunch of potentially dangerous chemicals.
While many non-tattooed people advocate against tattooing, claiming the lack of safe chemicals within the ink, all people can agree the potential chemicals in tattoo removal cream is much more of a valid concern.
Since they're so potent, tattoo removal creams could do nothing more than irritate skin.
Not only are you at risk for false hope and wasted money for tattoo removal creams, but they can also leave pain and skin damage.
“Using the cream at home is risky. Some side effects could include burning, itching, irritation and even skin discoloration,” said Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “You might also experience an allergic reaction to the cream. Plus, they are not FDA-approved.”
While tattoo-removal creams are still suspect at this point, the common, as well as tried-and-true option, is laser removal.
Is laser tattoo-removal or a cover-up my best option?
Tattoo artists and dermatologists don’t discredit all topical creams on the tattoo market. Numbing creams and cold compresses are praised for helping manage the pain during laser removal.
“Smaller ink particles go [via the lymphatics to the lymph nodes] with normal tattoo ink placement, but the laser process just breaks them up enough so that more can be removed,” said Dr. Suzanne L. Kilmer, director of Laser & Skin Surgery Medical Group, Inc.
“Tattoo ink needs high energy, ultrashort laser pulses in order to break up the ink particles.”
While laser treatment is the best method for tattoo removal, your skin will never completely return to “normal.” You will still always have faded remnants of the original tattoo. This is why cover-up tattoos are an artform in itself.
This said, to get the best cover-up piece, many people go through the laser first, to lighten and “lift” the original tattoo.
A cover-up will always need to be darker and bigger than the original tattoo.
Risks of laser removal
Most tattoos require at least six to eight laser sessions to be fully removed, but for bigger pieces, the ink usually requires more. While laser tattoo removal is pretty common, and so far our most effective method, it does comes with its own set of risks.
When the tattoo ink is in its original, intended state, the particles are too large for your body to process. This is why the ink in your body is more or less, completely safe. However, one of the main concerns with laser removal is that when the pigment is broken up, it can pass through the body's natural detox process.
“The downside of this is that it's going through the liver, kidneys, etc., so if the inks aren't entirely organic, it can raise concerns about carcinogenic compounds being activated by lasers, and then processed through your body,” tattoo artist, Dillon Forte, said.
But what can I do if I don’t want to go through laser tattoo removal?
You can get your skin surgically removed by a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon, but with surgical excision, expect scarring.
Our advice? Get a bunch of rad work elsewhere on your body to distract from it.