Edmund has spent the last ten years working in clinical research. He has written many articles on human anatomy and physiology.
The Cost of Tattoo Removal
A beautiful, well-executed tattoo is a piece of tasty eye candy. But sometimes, a thin line separates a great tattoo from an awful one. I have seen plenty of awful ones in my time, ranging from a name on a stranger's face to a pitchfork on my girlfriend's pelvis.
What can you do about a crappy tattoo? Since you are reading this, you probably know that a laser tattoo removal is a long and costly process. This is why many choose to use ink as a cover-up instead. But covering up isn't always an option. One laser treatment can cost as much as $2,000 US, depending on the size and location of the tattoo and the type of laser used. And it takes multiple, long sessions to achieve the desired result.
This huge price tag, combined with multiple, lengthy sessions, leave people seeking cheaper and more convenient alternatives, such as tattoo removal creams. But do they work?
Do Tattoo Removal Creams Work?
All tattoo removal methods have one obstacle in common: They have to penetrate the outermost layers of the skin (epidermis and dermis) to interact with the ink. There is currently little to no evidence that tattoo removal creams can penetrate the skin well enough to make a significant effect on breaking down the ink. They may lighten or fade the ink, but that's the most they can do.
So the short answer is no, they don't work.
Furthermore, the FDA has not approved or cleared any DIY tattoo removal cream or ointment. They have neither reviewed them nor seen any evidence of efficacy. Furthermore, they warn that these DIY creams may cause unexpected adverse reactions such as rash, burning, scarring, and impact on skin pigmentation.
According to the FDA, a laser is the only effective and safe method. The treatment should be performed by a qualified dermatologist specialized in tattoo removal, using an approved laser device.
The Truth About Tattoo Fading Creams
So even though they are cheap and easy to apply, the downsides of tattoo removal creams outweigh the upsides. For the creams, the downsides are:
- health risks (rash, burning, scarring, and impact on skin pigmentation)
- lack of evidence of efficacy (the evidence is anecdotal)
- lack of reviews by health authorities (the FDA has not approved any)
If you'd like to read a firsthand account of someone who's personally tried and compared every method of tattoo removal, read My Experience Lightening and Removing My Tattoo at Home.
Getting a tattoo is a lot like marriage—a lifelong commitment, painful and expensive to part from.
What About Laser Removal?
The efficacy of tattoo removal creams is significantly inferior to the laser. Until further notice, laser remains the de facto standard for tattoo removal. But beware! There are different types and quality of laser devices. What you need is a qualified dermatologist with the right equipment.
During a tattoo removal session, the laser burst zaps large ink particles into smaller, bite-size bits for the white blood cells to carry away. This makes it much faster and easier for the body to mop up and transport the tiny ink particles to the liver. The liver makes sure the ink is excreted in your next bowel movements. In other words, you'll poop your tattoo.
Laser Removal Depends on Color Composition
The effectiveness of the laser treatment depends largely on the color composition of the tattoo. Red and yellow are known to be more difficult to remove than black and blue. Depending on the tattoo's size, color, and location, multiple treatment sessions are usually required to obtain the desired outcome. Enough healing time should be allocated between treatment sessions.
The pain involved depends on an individual's tolerance. Side effects include blistering, bleeding, and soreness, but these are usually short-lasting. Another important side effect is scarring. Even the very latest of laser technologies can't guarantee a perfect result, and complete removal may not be possible in many cases. However, the number of treatment sessions and side effects have significantly reduced over time.
With the high price tag, potential side effects, and multiple sessions associated with laser treatment, there is a need to develop cheaper and less painful alternatives. But the invention of an effective topical cream still has a long way to go.
If you'd like to hear about one woman's personal experience with laser removal and see photos of her journey, read My Tattoo Removal Story.
If Creams and Laser Don't Work, Then What?
The only other method used to remove tattoos besides creams and laser is excision, the surgical removal of a tattoo. In some cases, a plastic surgeon can simply cut the tattooed skin away. If you'd like to read about someone's personal review of laser vs. surgical removal and see ghastly photos of the process, read A Guide to Tattoo Excision and Laser Removal Procedures.
Why Tattoos Are Permanent
Tattoo artists use electrically-powered machines with tiny needles to place ink through the epidermis and into the dermis—the inner layer of the skin. Scientists say that the human body is excellent at recognizing and eliminating foreign particles. So why doesn't your tattoo quickly fade away and disappear within months? It turns out the human body is very bad at getting rid of tattoos.
In the human body, white blood cells round up foreign bodies and transport them to specialized organs for excretion. But the tiny size of these white blood cells relative to the ink particles makes it impossible for them to round up the ink particles that make up tattoos. It's like telling a brigade of ants to eat an elephant. The white blood cells can only get rid of small ink particles, so the larger ink particles will stay put. That is why tattoos are permanent and also why they may fade to a certain extent over time.
- Tattoo Removal Options and Results, FDA
- Laser Tattoo Removal: Cliniical Update, ACSI
- Tattoo Removal Process, CBS News
Remember, it costs a lot more money, time, and effort to remove a tattoo than to get one. So be sure to think it through before you wear it. Don't go to a tattoo parlor when you are drunk or under the influence of anything or anyone.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Edmund Custers