Do Tattoo Removal Creams Really Work?

For some, tattoos are a thing to be cherished. They can be a fashion of self-expression; a way to mark a meaningful event in their life; or even a means of memorializing a lost one. For others, however, there comes a point—whether it’s because they’ve found a new job, made a significant life change, or have simply developed an allergy to the ink—at which a tattoo ceases to become something they enjoy having on their body, and begins to feel like a liability instead. If this happens to you, you’ll probably wish you had never gotten a tattoo in the first place . . . and then you’ll begin looking for solutions.

Perform a search online for “tattoo removal,” and two options will immediately present themselves: 1) laser surgery; and 2) do-it-yourself creams and ointments that claim to make tattoos simply fade away at a fraction of the cost of laser treatment. The most important difference between them? Only one of these methods has been shown to work.

Lasers work to remove tattoos by focusing a high-intensity light beam on the ink; the heat from the beam breaks up the tattoo’s particles into tiny fragments, which your body eventually absorbs. Every tattoo is different, and some colors respond only to specific laser wavelengths—this means that every treatment is different, and has to be adapted to the individual case. The number of sessions required to remove a tattoo will vary depending on its size and color, but generally at least two to four treatments are necessary.

Lasers can significantly lighten tattoos, and in some cases remove them altogether. Laser tattoo removal is less invasive and less painful than other methods, such as excision, dermabrasion, and salabrasion, because no incisions need to be made. Most practitioners consider laser treatment to be the safest tattoo removal method available today.

Whereas lasers focus beneath the skin to target ink directly, tattoo removal creams target the surface—they essentially bleach the area of skin where they are applied. Because of this, a cream can’t erase a tattoo entirely. The most a cream will achieve is a mild lightening or fading of the tattoo, not a complete removal. In addition, these products, which are acid-based, are not FDA-approved, and they have been known to cause bad skin reactions; FDA’s Consumer Updates page specifically directs the public not to attempt to use do-it-yourself tattoo removal products.

Tattoo removal creams are far less expensive than laser treatment, but the reason for their affordability is the fact that they have not been scientifically proven to work. If you’re serious about getting rid of your unwanted tattoo, speak to a doctor experienced in tattoo removal; don’t spend your money on an ineffective, unproven treatment.

About the author

Dr. Usha Rajagopal is a board certified plastic surgeon with over 15 years of experience specializing in tattoo removal in San Francisco.