Does Tattoo Removal Cream Work?

So you’re ready to part with your tattoo. Of course, you want to make the process as simple and successful as possible, and it’s not unlikely that these goals have led you to consider tattoo removal cream. The idea of an at-home tattoo removal cream that works by erasing your unwanted tattoo art is obviously appealing, but how does tattoo removal cream work and is it actually effective? We’re here to tell you what we know.

The Goal Of Tattoo Removal Creams

If you’re trying to make sense of tattoo removal methods, it’s helpful to begin with some foundational knowledge about what a tattoo is. Tattoos are essentially composed of ink particles stuck in your dermis (a thick layer of tissue that lies directly beneath your skin, or epidermis). Why are they stuck there? Well, although your white blood cells (WBCs) want to carry away the foreign material, ink particles are simply too large for the WBCs to carry and dispose of. Thus, the particles stay fixed in the dermis and tattoos remain permanent—at least until tattoo removal methods enter the picture. So basically, every tattoo removal method ultimately aims to deal with these ink particles, and the approaches they take are what distinguishes them. For instance, laser tattoo removal uses high-speed lasers to break up the pigment in the skin and while it may be the most expensive tattoo removal method it is still the most effective tattoo removal method. On the other hand, dermabrasion sands down the skin with a high-speed brush, salabrasion uses salt to sand down the skin and remove ink, excision surgically removes the tattooed portion of the skin, and tattoo removal creams utilize chemicals to remove inks.

Types of Tattoo Removal Creams

Tattoo removal creams are applied as topical treatments and most commonly use hydroquinone or trichloroacetic acid (TCA) as the active removal agent. These two chemicals function quite differently from one another.

TCA induces a chemical burn—and yes, that is as scary as it sounds. TCA tattoo removal creams work by burning or peeling away layers of the epidermis in an apparent effort to free some of the ink pigment stuck way below in the dermis. Effectiveness is low, and the possibility of scarring is extremely high. More likely than not, you’ll be left with a significant scar in place of or in addition to your existing tattoo. Creams that use TCA are perhaps your worst option.

Hydroquinone, on the other hand, takes a less damaging albeit equally ineffective approach. The chemical hydroquinone is actually used by dermatologists to treat epidermal melasma, a condition involving irregular pigmentation in the epidermis. Hydroquinone is effective in fading irregular pigmentation in cases of epidermal melasma but is not effective in treating other kinds of melasma—namely dermal and mixed melasma. These cases involve irregular pigmentation of the dermis  (the same layer of tissue where ink particles reside) as opposed to the epidermis. In these cases, hydroquinone is simply too superficial to get the job done. The chemical is not capable of affecting any condition that occurs in the dermis—including tattoos. Additionally, it has been shown to cause eczema. Like TCA, the drawbacks of this option greatly outweigh the benefits.

There are creams out there that don’t rely on either TCA or hydroquinone as active ingredients. They are difficult to find, and as far as we have found, reviews always reveal them to be scams (for example, this $55 Tattoo-Off Cream with review after review warning how ineffective it is). In fact, regardless of their composition, tattoo removal creams turn out to be scams far too frequently. This probably has to do with the fact that their production is altogether unregulated by the FDA, allowing essentially anyone to market ineffective treatments to hopeful buyers.

Another Way To Remove Tattoos

It’s disappointing, but the evidence is clear: Tattoo removal creams just don’t work. We’re not the only ones who have come to this conclusion—in addition to the countless disappointed users of tattoo removal cream, the Mayo Clinic and American Academy of Dermatology both strongly recommend against using these creams. They are ineffective, unregulated, and unsafe.

Before you become too discouraged, please allow us to point you in a hopeful direction: Laser tattoo removal. It is undeniably the most effective method, and lots of people don’t realize that many of the qualities that make tattoo removal cream so appealing are offered by laser tattoo removal as well. Perhaps the sheer use of the word “laser” leads people to believe the process is dauntingly complex. On the contrary, we actually find it to be the most straightforward, logical method of tattoo removal. The gist is this: A laser shatters the large ink particles stuck in your dermis, making them small enough for WBCs to carry away. The WBCs do their job and just like that, the tattoo is gone. It’s not rocket science, but if you’re interested in more technical details you can read about them here.

Another common misconception is that laser tattoo removal costs will eat up your entire life savings. Sources promoting tattoo removal cream will tell you the procedure costs thousands and thousands of dollars. Perhaps in the most complex cases the price begins to approach these figures, but in many instances the entire removal comes to less than $1000.

The day an effective tattoo removal cream is invented will be a glorious day and we will be right alongside you celebrating, but it certainly hasn’t arrived yet. For the sake of your health, your time, and success of the process: If you’re thinking about tattoo removal, stay away from creams.