Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Tattoo Fade Cream

tattoo fade cream
Credit: Sarah Harvey

It’s totally normal to fall out of love—with a friend, with a food, and yes, even with one (or more) of your tattoos. Maybe you got a piece when you were 18 and at 25, it isn’t feeling so fresh. Or perhaps your ink suffered from an infamous blowout and despite a slew of touch-ups, it’s never looked the way you hoped. Could tattoo fade cream be your non-invasive removal solution?

Allow me to back up for a second. The most common—and most effective—way to get rid of an unwanted tattoo is using laser removal treatment. But laser removal is a lengthy process that requires multiple sessions which can cost as much as $800 each. For those in search of a less expensive, less time-consuming, and less invasive option, tattoo fade cream seems like a no-brainer. Think about it: Not only are fade creams relatively inexpensive when bought over-the-counter, but, when prescribed by a doctor, they’re usually covered by insurance. But how—and how well, if at all—do they work?

What exactly is tattoo fade cream?

Tattoo fade cream is a topical product that, when used daily, is supposed to remove your unwanted ink from the top down—starting by fading the tattoo at the surface and going deeper into the skin (tattoo ink is embedded in the second layer of the skin; the dermis) with every application.

While application instructions will differ based on the type of fade cream you use—there are over-the-counter and prescription products on the market—most will recommend applying the cream once daily for anywhere from a few weeks to several months at a time. The length of use depends on whether your cream is prescribed by a doctor. If it’s prescribed, typically the active ingredients are more concentrated, and the product should be used for a shorter period of time. 

What are its active ingredients?

Most tattoo fade creams have one of the following two active ingredients: hydroquinone and trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Hydroquinone is a key ingredient in many skincare products designed to treat hyperpigmentation—a condition where some patches of skin become darker than normal. “Hydroquinone prevents the skin pigment [or melanin] from being renewed and slowly lightens it where it is applied,” explains Dr. Vladyslava Doktor, a dermatologist in Brooklyn.

Trichloroacetic acid, on the other hand, is typically found in skin peels designed to reduce discoloration, scarring, and wrinkles. According to Dr. Bruce Robinson, a cosmetic and medical dermatologist in New York City, “[i]t’s not very well known how TCA works, but it does tend to fade pigmentation from sun exposure and sun damage.” Acids are typically exfoliators, though, which means that rather than blocking melanin—like hydroquinone—to lighten the skin, TCA sloughs off layers of your epidermis instead.

Does tattoo fade cream really work?

Despite its use of some pretty legit active ingredients, Dr. Robinson says tattoo fade cream is almost always a dud. These creams are topical products, meaning they only touch the top layer of your skin, and since tattoo ink is embedded in the second layer of skin, there’s no chance a fade cream can actually lighten your tattoo. 

The active ingredients in most creams are also formulated to work on melanin (the skin’s pigment), not carbon, the main ingredient in black tattoo ink—which means fade creams might lighten the skin around your tattoo, but not the tattoo itself. If that happens, it could actually make your unwanted tattoo appear even more prominent—the opposite of what you were going for.

Are there any side effects?

Any new skincare product—whether it’s over-the-counter or doctor-prescribed—can have adverse side effects ranging from redness to excessive peeling or burning. And fade creams in particular can create blotches of much lighter, hyper-sensitive skin that burn more easily in the sun. If you experience any negative side effects while using a tattoo fade cream, you should immediately consult your doctor. But our recommendation would be to avoid fade creams altogether. Aside from having no proof that they’re effective, if you have a reaction, they can also result in your tattoo looking worse.

The bottom line

“The problem is, fade creams really don’t fade tattoos at all,” says Dr. Robinson. Although there are online reviews of fade creams [check out the reviews for Wrecking Balm Tattoo Fade System on Amazon] from customers whose tattoos seemed to fade after use, the reviews are generally pretty awful. For most people, the products simply don’t work. If you decide to try the product and it fails you, not only have you wasted your money, but in extreme cases, your cost consciousness might lead to unsightly skin damage like burns and  rashes, the remedy for which costs even more than the products themselves. Basically, if you really want a tattoo removed, your best bet it to save up to get laser treatment—it’s expensive, but at least it works.  

If you liked our post Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Tattoo Fade Cream, make sure to check out our feature Here’s Exactly How the Tattoo Removal Process Works.

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