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Anyone who's gotten a tattoo they later regret has wished for a magical cream to make it all go away. And although the likelihood of such a cream has always been a distant dream, a string of "tattoo removal creams" has emerged over the past few years, claiming the ability to erase your unwanted ink.
Tattoo removal creams seem miraculous at best and suspect at worst, and they haven't exactly gained much traction. Curious whether or not these creams are worth your time or whether they're a big scam? TODAY Style consulted the experts to find out!
Why are tattoos so hard to remove?
Can't quite figure out how tattoos are actually removed? It helps to know exactly what your skin goes through when you get a tattoo in the first place.
"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, FAAD, clinical instructor of dermatology, Northwell Health at Lenox Hill Hospital.
When tattoo needles deposit ink into the dermis (a layer of skin below the surface), your epidermis (the surface-level skin) then acts as a barrier to keep it from being removed. Since your tattoo ink is being so thoroughly protected, it’s naturally hard to remove.
"The size of the pigment makes it difficult to take the pigment away unless made into smaller sizes by a laser," Robinson said. With the help of a laser, the pigment is then transformed into smaller globs that can be transported away by your macrophages.
Do tattoo removal creams work?
Tattoos are traditionally considered permanent, so the thought of simply rubbing in a cream to remove all that ingrained ink sounds a bit far-fetched. But various tattoo removal creams have popped up, promising to easily make that ink disappear.
"Most tattoo removal creams claim to work by bleaching or peeling away the epidermis, or the top layer of skin. However, tattoo ink is generally deposited into the dermis, or deeper layer of the skin, so they are unlikely effective at completely removing the tattoo ink," said cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology.
The tattoo artists and dermatologists TODAY Style spoke to were quick to caution against these "miracles creams" that sound too good to be true.
"Honestly, they're a gimmick from what I've gathered and completely ineffective. I believe they're meant to fade that tattoo over time, maybe by bleaching the skin or causing some form of microdermabrasion. Tattoos fade over time naturally anyway, though, with sun exposure, tanning, burns, cuts, etc.," tattoo artist Dillon Forte said. "These creams have been around for at least 10 years and haven't gained popularity from tattooers."
For a tattoo removal cream to truly penetrate the epidermis, it would need to be formulated with a whole crop of potentially dangerous chemicals, and that may not be safe.
"I would be suspect in wondering about the effects of absorbing these chemicals into the skin and additionally how the original tattoo scar looks in comparison to the surrounding skin (i.e. the affect of sun exposure to the once tattooed area),"tattoo expert Lisa Barretta said.
Since they're so potent, tattoo removal creams could also irritate skin.
"Using the cream at home is risky. Some side effects could include burning, itching, irritation and even skin discoloration. You might also experience an allergic reaction to the cream. Plus, they are not FDA-approved," said Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and author of the book "Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From a Top New York Dermatologist."
What are some alternate ways to remove a tattoo?
Even though tattoo removal creams don’t seem legitimate at this point, you do have another, more common option if you regret a tattoo: laser tattoo removal. This method is notorious for being a bit painful, but can be manageable with the help of numbing cream and cold compresses.
"With Q-Switched and Picosecond lasers, you shatter the ink so that you can remove the ink by making it small enough to go via the lymphatics to the lymph nodes. Smaller ink particles go there with normal tattoo ink placement, but this process just breaks them up enough so that more can be removed. Tattoo ink needs high energy, ultrashort laser pulses in order to break up the ink particles," said Dr. Suzanne L. Kilmer, director of Laser & Skin Surgery Medical Group, Inc.
According to Forte, most tattoos require at least six to eight laser sessions to be fully removed, and usually more. And while laser tattoo removal is pretty effective and common, it comes with its own set of risks.
"My main concern with laser removal is that when tattoo pigment is broken down, it can be passed 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," Dillon said. "When the pigment is in it's original state, the particles are too large for your body to process so they're in a state of stasis and completely safe."
A board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon can also perform a surgical excision to remove an unwanted tattoo, but one should expect scarring and consider that this procedure — like any surgical procedure — can be risky.
To avoid removal in the first place, tattoo artists advise their clients to think long and hard about a tattoo choice before diving in.
"First and foremost, consider your tattoo before getting it and research your artists. Find something personal that resonates with you — not something off of Pinterest — because it is on you forever," said Minka Sicklinger, a tattoo artist based in New York City. "If you do change your mind either live with it or consider a cover up if possible. Otherwise, laser tattoo removal is the best method, but it will never return your skin to normal. You will still always have remnants of the original tattoo so you will probably need a cover up regardless."