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 you’ve probably considered tattoo removal cream. The idea of an at-home tattoo removal cream that works by erasing your unwanted tattoo art is appealing, but how does tattoo removal cream work, and is it 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). They’re stuck because while your white blood cells (WBCs) want to carry away the foreign material, ink particles are too large for the WBCs to carry and dispose of. So the particles stay fixed and tattoos remain permanent—at least until tattoo removal methods enter the picture.

Every tattoo removal method ultimately aims to deal with these ink particles. For instance, laser tattoo removal uses high-speed lasers to break up the pigment in the skin. While it may be the most expensive tattoo removal method, it is still the most effective. Alternatively, 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. Tattoo removal creams utilize chemicals to remove inks.

Types of tattoo removal creams

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

TCA tattoo removal induces a chemical burn—and yes, that is as scary as it sounds. TCA tattoo removal creams work by burning or peeling away epidermis layers in an apparent effort to free some of the ink pigment stuck way below in the dermis. Unfortunately, effectiveness is low, and the possibility of scarring is exceptionally high. You’ll likely be left with a significant scar. Creams that use TCA for tattoo removal are perhaps your worst option.

Hydroquinone, on the other hand, takes a less damaging albeit equally ineffective approach. Dermatologists use hydroquinone to treat epidermal melasma, which involves irregular pigmentation in the epidermis. Hydroquinone is effective in fading uneven pigmentation. However, hydroquinone is too superficial to get the job done when it comes to tattoo removal. 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 tattoo removal, 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. 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 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 many people don’t realize that the qualities that make tattoo removal cream so appealing are offered by laser tattoo removal. Perhaps the sheer use of the word “laser” leads people to believe the process is dauntingly complex. On the contrary, we find it to be the most straightforward, logical method of tattoo removal. 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. 

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. In most instances, the entire removal comes to less than $1,000.

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. If you’re thinking about tattoo removal, stay away from creams.