So you have a tattoo that you’re looking to remove—preferably at home, without the pain of professional laser treatments. I get it. Which means you’ve probably also seen some of the “magical” DIY solutions on the internet, like at-home pigment lighteners and tattoo-removal creams, and you’re now curious to know if they’re legit. But if there’s anything you should know before getting a tattoo, it’s that the removal process isn’t as simple as a quick Amazon purchase.
Still, whether you want to get rid of your tattoo to make room for something new (hi, fine line tattoos) or to reflect a fresh era of your life, you first need to understand what will—and won’t—work. Which is why I consulted with board-certified dermatologists Mona Gohara, MD, and Karan Lal, MD, to find out whether or not tattoo-removal creams actually work, along with what actually can remove a tattoo (plus, how much professional tattoo removal costs). Keep scrolling for all the info you need to know before wasting any $$, starting with the most important q:
Do tattoo-removal creams work?
Sorry to say that no, tattoo-removal creams do not work to remove tattoos, says both Dr. Gohara and Dr. Lal. “Tattoo-removal creams typically contain glycolic acid, trichloroacetic acid—TCA—and/or hydroquinone,” says Dr. Lal, noting that these ingredients (which, fyi, are already commonly found in dark-spot correctors) can only exfoliate the surface of your skin, aka the epidermis.
Tattoo ink, however, is deposited into the second layer of your skin (aka the dermis). So while tattoo-removal creams might be able to slough off the top layer of your skin to slightly fade or desaturate the color of your tattoo, no topical creams can remove pigment below the surface, says Dr. Gohara. In fact, even pure bleaching agents, like hydroquinone, can’t remove tattoos. “Doctors know hydroquinone has some effect on melanin—the natural pigment in our skin—but we have no evidence to support that it works on the pigment found in tattoos,” says Dr. Lal.
What can fade a tattoo?
According to the internet (which, reminder, is not the same as a licensed physician), there are supposedly multiple methods to fade a tattoo, including potent chemical peels that burn away your skin and some of the tattoo’s pigments, or dermabrasion, which sands down your skin to help fade your ink. Sound painful? That’s because they are—and also carry extremely high risks of permanent scarring, which is why most dermatologists don’t recommend them.
Instead, the safest and most-effective treatment option is laser tattoo removal, which works by sending short pulses of light energy into the tattoo to “shatter” the pigment and slowly fade it over time. Though lasers are largely the preferred method for tattoo removal by dermatologists, they can be time intensive, painful, and expensive. Think: at least eight sessions (at $400 to $1,000 a session) spaced four-to-six weeks apart (or longer, depending on your skin tone, the age and color of your tattoo, and more).
Can a tattoo be totally removed?
Yes and no. Tattoo-removal lasers can reduce the pigment in your tattoo by 70 to 80 percent, but “any more than that is a bonus,” says Dr. Lal. Of course, some patients do end up with close-to-total removal, but it’s not standard, especially when results differ based on the color, size, and location of your tattoo. “Vibrant colors, like green and yellow, are much more stubborn to treatment,” says Dr. Gohara, “whereas blacks and reds are easier to remove, because the laser is more responsive to pigments already found in our skin.”
How can I remove a tattoo at home fast?
Unfortunately, there are no ways to “remove” a tattoo at home. Skin-bleaching creams and at-home remedies won’t work and can even result in burning, scarring, and severe irritation if used incorrectly. Even the at-home remedies you find online are more likely to inflame your skin than fade your tattoo. “A lot of the DIY tattoo-removal options rely on the use of organic acids, like lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, that over-exfoliate and dry out your skin,” says Dr. Lal, “which can lead to burns and scars that will just make your tattoo even harder to remove with lasers later on.”
If you’re looking to get a tattoo removed, skip the bogus, potentially harmful tattoo-removal creams and head to your dermatologist’s office to chat through laser treatments. Yes, they’re expensive and will take some time, but if you’re serious about getting rid of your tattoo, lasers are the only safe and effective option out there. So save your money and, in the meantime, figure out which matching tattoo you’ll get with your bestie once your old one is gone.
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Beth Gillette is the beauty editor at Cosmopolitan with four years of experience researching, writing, and editing tattoo stories that range from microblading to getting a tattoo while pregnant. She’s an authority in all skincare categories but is an expert when it comes to tattoo removal, thanks to researching and speaking to doctors about removing her own tattoo. She regularly tests and analyzes skincare products for efficacy, while working with the industry’s top dermatologists to assess new formulas and brands.
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