Tattoo removal creams are applied to tattooed skin in hopes of erasing the ink. Many are available in department stores or online retailers, but there’s little evidence that tattoo removal creams actually remove tattoos.
Most of these products don’t even claim to remove tattoos entirely. Instead, they claim to help make your tattoos less noticeable.
Tattoo removal creams also carry serious side effects, including burning and scarring.
Keep reading to learn more about why tattoo removal creams don’t work and what methods you can use to fully remove tattoos without harming your body or damaging your skin.
The short answer? No.
These creams claim to remove tattoos by bleaching or peeling away the top layer of your skin (epidermis). Some even claim to replace the white blood cells on your skin (macrophages) that are filled with tattoo ink.
Tattoo ink is injected into the next layer of your skin (dermis), so many of these surface-level treatments by tattoo removal creams are ineffective at removing the tattoo ink. At best, a cream will make the tattoo fade away, leaving a distorted, discolored version of the tattoo that can become a permanent scar.
Tattoo removal creams also contain chemicals, such as the peeling agent trichloroacetic acid, that are also used in treatments for other skin conditions. Although trichloroacetic acid is regularly used by healthcare professionals for professional skin treatments, it can be dangerous to use at home without supervision.
Chemicals like trichloroacetic acid are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but their use in these creams isn’t. No tattoo removal cream currently on the market has been approved by the FDA.
The chemicals in these products can cause painful side effects, including:
- permanent scarring
- permanent skin discoloration
If you have allergies, using a questionable cream may could cause potentially life-threatening symptoms.
Several tattoo removal options are considered safe if they’re done by a doctor, dermatologist, or other licensed medical professional.
Laser surgery removes tattoos using a special type of laser called Q-switched lasers. These lasers apply a pulse of concentrated heat that breaks up the ink in the skin.
Because of the heat involved, your skin might swell, blister, or bleed from the treatment. Your doctor will give you an antibacterial ointment, such as Neosporin, to prevent infection.
Laser surgery removal costs vary based on the size, colors, and type of tattoo being removed. On average, a single session can cost $200 to $500.
Laser surgery may take several sessions to completely remove the tattoo, so a full treatment may cost anywhere from $1,000 to over $10,000.
To do this, your doctor will numb the skin around the tattoo with local anesthetic. Then, they’ll use a scalpel to cut out the tattooed skin and use sutures to stitch the skin back up.
Surgical excision is quick and effective because it can be done in one session and fully removes all the tattooed skin. But it can leave a visible scar and might not work well on larger tattoos.
Surgical excision costs depend on the size and location of the tattoo, as well as whether your doctor suggests using skin grafts. On average, surgical excision costs about $850.
Dermabrasion is done using a tool that’s similar to a rotary sander. After numbing your skin by freezing it or using a local anesthetic, your doctor will use a circle-shaped abrasive brush to scrape off tattooed skin.
Dermabrasion can make the skin feel raw for over a week after the procedure is done. It’s not as effective as laser or surgical techniques, so it’s not usually your doctor’s first choice for tattoo removal.
Costs of dermabrasion depend on the size of the tattoo. A small tattoo may be removed for less than $100, but a larger tattoo may range from $1,000 to $5,000.
Not all tattoo removal techniques may work well for you. The size, color, or type of tattoo ink used can all affect how successful each treatment will be.
Your doctor may not recommend laser removal if you have sensitive skin or if your skin doesn’t react well to other treatments. Laser removal might also be more expensive or time-consuming than you’d prefer, especially because larger tattoos may require many treatments for complete removal.
Surgical excision can leave a noticeable scar or be too painful for larger tattoos. This technique is most effective on small tattoos.
Dermabrasion may be a good alternative if laser or excision techniques don’t work for you or are too expensive. It may also be cheaper and faster for smaller tattoos. But dermabrasion is also much less effective than laser or surgical treatment.
Before getting a tattoo removed, ask your healthcare professional the following questions:
- Which procedures are safest for my skin?
- Which treatment would you recommend for me?
- How much will the removal cost?
- How long will the treatment take? Will I need to have multiple treatments?
- Are there any risks I face with tattoo removal?
- Will the treatment hurt? What kinds of anesthesia or numbing are safe to use?
- Will the removal treatments cause any discomfort in my daily activities?
- How do I make sure I’m ready for the treatment?
- How effective will the treatment be?
Make sure you ask your healthcare professional about reputable tattoo removal offices. In some cases, your healthcare professional may be able to refer you to a surgeon or dermatologist.
The person doing the removal should either be a licensed doctor, surgeon, or dermatologist with expertise in tattoo removal. They should also have access to your medical records to make sure you’re healthy enough for the procedure.
Tattoo removal creams don’t work and can cause serious skin reactions that result in permanent skin or tissue damage. These creams shouldn’t be used as an alternative to FDA-approved treatments.
Plenty of reputable tattoo removal services exist that can provide you with safe, effective treatments. Some organizations, such as Homeboy Industries, provide free tattoo removal by volunteer doctors for people who wish to remove gang-related tattoos. Other organizations may offer free tattoo removal for racist or other derogatory ink.