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Tattoo removal creams: do they work?

By Jeff Rasmussen, PhD

Got tattoo regret? If so, you've probably wondered about the effectiveness of about tattoo removal creams. Tattoos are meant to be permanent: the tattoo machine uses a needle to put the ink below the epidermis (outer skin layer) so that it won't fade over time as the skin in naturally sloughed off. So is it reasonable to expect a cream to remove this ink?

This article presents four questions you should consider before you spend $100s tattoo removal creams.

What do Experts Think of Tattoo Removal Creams?

Medical doctors who specialize in the study of skin conditions, care and disorders are called dermatologists. After receiving a medical degree, they study for three more years to become an expert in skin care. If tattoo removal creams work, you'd expect their companies would be able to garner support from such medical experts. Some tattoo removal cream websites have support from the likes of Good Ol'' Doc so and so, but none of the sites have any credible support from actual board certified Dermatologist. On the other hand, Mayo Clinic dermatologist Lawrence Gibson, M.D states that "there's no evidence that they work. At best, tattoo removal cream may fade or lighten a tattoo. The tattoo will remain visible, however, and skin irritation and other reactions are possible." Of course, those given to believe in conspiracies, may believe that dermatologists are in cahoots to protect their lucrative laser removal services. (See laser tattoo removal information).

Can you Believe Customer's Testimonials about Effectiveness?

Many of the tattoo removal cream websites have testimonials from happy customers. However, are these credible? They usually do not come with an email or phone number or with sufficient details to evaluate if the customer's word is worthwhile. Do they publish negative comments about their products? It's also not uncommon to find testimonials on other websites, but some of these websites are clearly owned by same company that makes the tattoo removal cream; you can run a whois query to find the website owner and host. To be fair, it's also difficult to assess the credibility of negative comments on such site; they might be posted by rival companies hoping to discredit their competitors.

Is Photo Evidence Showing Tattoo Fading Believable?

One of the fascinating approaches that tattoo removal cream website use is to post pictures that purport to show tattoos fading over time. For example there will be a series of pictures: one before picture, one after three months and one after six months. We use the term fascinating, because many of these series are obviously fake; it's just one picture that has been photoshopped to fade the tattoo. Really poor fakes show the "before," "during" and "after" pictures taken at exactly the same distance and angle. Is it believable that the camera person could shoot three pictures several months apart holding the camera at the exact same distance and angle? An even funnier one purported to show a neck tattoo fading over several months. Only problem was that the person's hair was in exactly the same position; apparently they would have us believe that not a hair had grown or moved over six months. Some sites, at least, have better fakes, but we weren't able to find any that images of sufficient resolution or documentation to be credible.

What's the Quality of Scientific Evidence that the Cream Works?

Some tattoo removal cream sites claim to have scientific support for the efficacy of their product. The claims are dubious at best. An actual scientific study would need to be carried out by a disinterested medical researcher. A typical protocol would use a placebo control group that received an ordinary cream. It would involve a double-blind study of carefully screened participants with tattoos. Double blind means that neither the participant nor the person who administered the cream would know if it was the tattoo removal cream or a placebo. The effectiveness would be measured by quantifiable measurements of fading subjected to statistical analysis.

How can you tell if a tattoo removal cream's claim of scientific support is valid? Here are some questions you should ask. Who carried out the study? What university or research facility do they work at? In what professional journal is the study published? How many subjects participated in the study? Was the study actually a double blind one with an appropriate control group?