Does Tattoo Removal Cream Really Work?
You have a tattoo you regret ever getting, but you’re not sure what to do about it.
You’ve considered laser tattoo removal, but you’ve heard it can be painful. Besides, you don’t really want to spend a year (and a good chunk of cash) on repeated visits to a dermatology or cosmetic surgery clinic to complete the procedure.
There are alternatives, but they sound a lot worse than getting the tattoo lasered off (it’s normal to have second thoughts when you hear the words “acid peel”).
You’re about ready to give up and just live with the tattoo (and the regret) for the rest of your life, but then someone recommends getting tattoo removal cream.
A cream that will erase your tattoo would be the answer to all your prayers: convenient, painless, and probably right within your budget.
It sounds too good to be true.
Maybe it is.
This article will go over everything you need to know about tattoo removal cream. Before you decide to try it out for yourself, read to the end so you know exactly what you’re getting into and what you can expect.
What Is Tattoo Removal Cream?
Tattoo removal creams are topical ointments that are meant to gradually fade or eliminate tattoos after repeat applications.
Tattoo removal creams are easy to find and can be purchased conveniently. As an over-the-counter product, you can probably find it at your local pharmacy. Plus if you can’t get any locally, there are many options readily available from online retailers.
Every brand of cream has different stuff in it, but there are some common active ingredients that you should know about if you’re considering using a tattoo removal cream.
Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA)
Trichloroacetic acid is the most common active ingredient found in tattoo removal creams. It is an acidic chemical that causes the skin to peel and shed, allowing your body to grow new skin to take its place.
TCA-based creams are often used before undergoing a laser tattoo removal procedure. Purveyors of TCA products note that the fading that results from repeat applications, makes the laser procedure more effective.
Hydroquinone-based creams are a popular alternative to TCA-based products. Hydroquinone ointments are used to fade liver spots, age spots, and freckles by impeding the body’s production of melanin.
The reduced melanin production results in lighter skin pigmentation, often affecting spots and blemishes as well. Hydroquinone-based creams evidently fade away tattoos using the same process.
Some products use natural ingredients to achieve the same effects while avoiding the chemicals mentioned above.
Many use lemongrass as an astringent to peel the skin without resorting to TCA. Furthermore, in the place of hydroquinone, some natural creams use ascorbic acid, white licorice, and other natural lightening agents to attempt to fade the tattooed area.
Active Ingredient Regulation
Most of the active ingredients in tattoo fade creams have been approved for some topical uses by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so we know that they are safe and effective when used to treat certain dermatological conditions.
It is important to note, however, that in every case, these chemicals have been approved for treatments other than tattoo removal. As of yet, no tattoo removal cream has secured FDA approval.
How Is Tattoo Removal Cream Supposed to Work?
So, now we know about the common active ingredients in tattoo removal creams, how exactly are they meant to work?
As we saw, there are broadly two kinds of tattoo removal creams: those that act as a lightening agent and those that peel a layer of skin.
In the case of hydroquinone-based creams, they work by essentially bleaching the skin. The reduction in melatonin fades the pigments in the epidermis (the top layer of your skin). Lightening the skin’s pigmentation is meant to, in turn, lighten and gradually fade the tattoo.
TCA-based creams, on the other hand, don’t target the skin’s pigmentation but target the skin itself. Instead of bleaching the epidermis, it removes it.
Once that top layer of skin is eliminated, it’s replaced by a fresh one. Repeating this in the tattooed area is meant to gradually wear away the tattoo. The theory is that as your skin is peeled off and replaced, you’ll eliminate some of the tattooed design in the process.
A New Cream that Works from Within
There’s been a bit of buzz recently about a new tattoo removal cream developed by a graduate student in the Department of Pathology at Dalhousie University in Canada. It’s not on the market yet, but it’s worth mentioning anyway because it has been purchased by a pharmaceutical company and might hit the shelves soon enough.
The cream is called Bisphosphonate Liposomal Removal (BLR) cream. Unlike other tattoo removal creams, it doesn’t target the epidermis – in fact, it doesn’t directly target the skin at all.
Though, if it doesn’t target the skin, how does it claim to fade away tattoos?
Without getting too technical, the cream works by stimulating white blood cells. When you get a tattoo, you’re injecting ink particles in your skin.
Your body registers these particles as foreign bodies and goes to work trying to eliminate them by sending white blood cells to attack the particles, break them down, and flush them out of your system.
Your white blood cells have very little success in doing this. They’re responsible for your tattoo’s natural fading over time, but that’s as much damage as they can do. Unless they have a little extra help.
That’s where the BLR cream comes in. It causes more blood cells to concentrate on the tattooed area. All those extra blood cells swarm at the ink particles, breaking them down and flushing them out more quickly. With these extra assaults on the ink, more of the particles are flushed out and the tattoo fades much more quickly.
How Effective Is Tattoo Removal Cream?
This is the million-dollar question: these creams sound great, but do they work?
One thing to keep in mind here is that most of the tattoo removal cream manufacturers make only modest claims about the effectiveness of their products. Very few claim that their cream can eliminate a tattoo completely, no matter how often you apply it.
Instead of erasing your tattoo completely, the creams are usually touted as a solution that will fade them, either so it simply looks less conspicuous or as a pre-treatment before undergoing laser tattoo removal.
Since products rarely make the bold claim that they will erase your tattoo, let’s instead ask whether they really can fade your tattoo.
The answer to that question is a resounding “maybe.”
Results May Vary
How effective the creams are will depend on the tattoo itself. Many people report that creams helped their tattoos fade a little, but didn’t have much of an effect on the outline. In other words, the filled-in colors washed out a bit but they were left with a clear outline of their tattoo despite repeat applications of the cream.
Even when the creams have some effect, the results may not be what you hoped for. A cream can only ever partially remove your tattoo, which means you could be left with one that is distorted or unevenly pigmented.
It might, in other words, end up looking like a tattoo that’s been poorly done and, depending on what you hope to get out of the removal procedure, could be a worse outcome than just leaving the tattoo alone.
There are also side effects to worry about. You’re dealing with some pretty abrasive stuff – after all, most creams claim to work by damaging your skin – which could leave you with permanent scarring.
Even if you don’t suffer any permanent effects, you might still have to deal with rashes and burning caused by the cream.
Maybe that’s a small price to pay if you get to avoid going under the laser (which can have some of those same side effects anyway) but it’s important to understand what your skin might go through before you start applying any of these ointments to it.
All in all, tattoo removal creams don’t work very well. And there’s a simple reason for that: the whole concept behind them is flawed.
Whether you’re using a skin-peeling TCA cream, a skin-bleaching hydroquinone cream, or one of their natural alternatives, they all target the same thing: the epidermis. The problem is, your tattoo isn’t in your epidermis; it just shows through it. Your ink is actually one layer deeper, in the layer of skin known as the dermis.
Therefore, no matter what the creams do to your epidermis, they’re never getting deep enough to reach the layer of skin that is actually tattooed.
What about Bisphosphonate Liposomal, then? It works far deeper than the epidermis, so it seems to have a better chance at actually affected the tattoo ink in your body.
This miracle cream sounds promising, sure, but there’s one big reason to think that it might not be as awesome as the news coverage about it makes it seem.
See, your white blood cells have trouble breaking down the ink particles in your skin, but it’s not because they’re too lazy or there aren’t enough of them. They can’t get rid of the ink because the particles are too big for them to latch onto, break down, and flush out.
The BLR cream won’t actually do anything about the size of the ink particles, so the white blood cells won’t be any more effective at wearing away the tattoo.
Whatever work it’s doing by stimulating white blood cells and clustering them in the tattooed part of your skin won’t be very effective if the ink particles aren’t broken down to sizes your white blood cells can handle.
It’s like sending more Davids after those Goliaths, but forgetting to give them stones and slings.
That being said, there’s still a chance that this cream works, but we haven’t seen much proof of it yet. The product is still undergoing pre-clinical trials, but given what we know about how ink and blood cells interact, it sounds like it might just be a lot of hype.
How Do You Apply Tattoo Removal Cream?
Even with all those considerations, you might still want to give the cream a try. It involves a really low investment in terms of cost, effort, and time, so even if you have reservations about it, it might be worth trying before opting for a more radical solution like laser removal.
If you do try it, you owe it to yourself to give the cream its best shot at success. You should always carefully follow the instructions that come with your cream, but here are some basic best practices for applying tattoo removal cream.
The first step is to clean the tattooed area you will be applying the cream on. It’s best if you can give your skin a good scrub to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells. This will make it easier for the cream to penetrate the skin and do its work.
Rub the Cream In
You should resist the temptation to apply a thick, creamy layer to your tattoo. Wanting to get rid of your tattoo more quickly is understandable, but slathering it on like it was whipped cream on your waffles won’t make it work any better or faster.
Instead, apply the cream on the area you wish to treat and then rub it in until it’s invisible.
The treated area doesn’t need to be covered for it to have any effects. There’s no need to put on any bandages after applying the cream. Airing out your skin and exposing it to the elements is perfectly fine.
Depending on the location of your tattoo, you might need to cover it with clothes (regrettably, applying removal cream to a chest tattoo is not an excuse to come into work shirtless). That’s no problem. Just wait until the cream is absorbed and the treated area is dry to the touch and then you can wear whatever you want on top of it.
Respect Those Wait Times
Any product you use will specify how long you should wait before applying the cream again. The active ingredient and its concentration will determine how long you have to wait.
The more abrasive the product, the longer you’ll have to spend recovering between treatments (though, at least in theory, these should be the most effective creams so you might still see better results in less time even with the longer breaks).
Some treatments use multiple creams. They’ll specify how long to wait between applications. As well as making sure to apply them in the stated order; the second cream might not be effective without the preparatory work done by the first one.
Again, don’t let impatience lead you to do something foolish. Applying the cream too frequently could cause some of those nasty side effects we mentioned above, like rashes and scarring.
What Alternatives Are There to Tattoo Removal Cream?
By this point, you might be feeling a bit disappointed. Tattoo removal cream might not be snake oil but it’s definitely not as effective as it’s often claimed to be.
If you want to fade or completely remove a tattoo, there are other options you can still consider. None of them are as easy as tattoo removal cream but they make up for that by actually getting you results.
Laser Tattoo Removal
Laser tattoo removal is the most common approach to fading and getting rid of tattoos, and there’s a reason for that: it’s by far the best method.
Laser tattoo removal uses quick blasts of extremely hot, highly concentrated light to break apart the ink particles in your skin. Because it reaches beyond the top layer of the skin and reaches the dermis where the ink is located, it’s an effective removal solution.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. It could take a dozen sessions (or more) to fade your tattoo away entirely, and you’ll need to let your skin heal for weeks in between each one. Plus, on top of taking so long to complete, there’s some pain involved.
Opinions differ about the pain, but one claim you’ll hear repeated often is that it hurts about as much as a rubber band snapping against your skin – over and over again.
Still, the time and discomfort involved can be a small price to pay for getting rid of something that was meant to be permanent.
It does, however, come with a hefty price tag. It usually costs a few hundred dollars per session, which means that you could easily pay a few thousand dollars to completely erase a tattoo.
The surgical excision method involves, as the name implies, cutting off the tattoo.
It sounds extreme, but it’s handled like any other medical procedure performed by a qualified professional. First, the doctor performing the excision numbs the skin around the tattoo.
Then, they’ll use a scalpel to remove the tattooed skin.
Finally, they’ll stitch the skin back up and give you advice on recovering from the surgery.
The big pro to surgical excision is its speed. You get your tattoo removed in one session. However, you are looking at the possibility of scarring and, as you can imagine, it’s not the best solution if you have larger tattoos you want to get rid of.
Dermabrasion basically involves sanding off the tattooed skin. After numbing the tattooed area, the doctor performing the procedure then uses an abrasive brush on the tattooed skin to scrape it off.
This procedure is not as effective as surgical excision and it can leave you with some painful skin damage, so it’s not usually recommended given the other options available.
Tattoo removal creams promise a faded tattoo with almost no hassle and very little expense. Unfortunately, all of the evidence points to the fact that it doesn’t work as well as the manufacturers of these products claim they do.
The most damning thing about the tattoo removal creams is that they work on a layer of skin that doesn’t even contain the tattoo ink particles. At best, it might affect the layer that covers the tattoo, making it harder to see.
Even the most effective creams only give minimal results and you still have to go through some possible discomfort and side effects to achieve them.
Laser tattoo removal is a far more effective procedure, and many people who want to get rid of their tattoos have used a removal cream to try to fade it first so that they have to sit through fewer lasering sessions.
If you still want to give tattoo removal cream a shot, just remember that it’s not an entirely harmless substance. It can damage your skin or cause serious discomfort. Before you purchase a cream, do your homework, and when it’s time to apply it, follow the instructions to the letter.
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