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Tattoos are extremely personal things, whether or not there's a deep meaning behind them. Just the act of having a design tattooed on you means you’re committed to having that image on you for the rest of your life. However, if there's something about the design that starts to sour for you—whether that's how it looks, how big it is, or the reasoning behind it—there’s always the option to have it removed.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you're sure you want to remove your ink, the idea of spending hundreds of dollars and weeks or months of your time for multiple sessions with a professional may not sound that enticing to you—especially if you want it gone as soon as possible. Trying to remove your tattoo at home may seem like a good option, but achieving that professional removal quality can be extremely difficult to do by yourself. Because a tattoo is made up of accumulated pigment in the dermis and subcutaneous tissue (aka deeper than the surface of your skin), it can be difficult to reach with any at-home methods, meaning the success rate is low to none.
To be safe, there are a few different “techniques” to stay away from to avoid causing more harm than good.
Salabrasion or Sand Abrasion
According to dermatologist and owner of Austin Skin, Kristina Collins, MD, rubbing something coarse onto your skin in an attempt to remove your ink will generally not do anything conducive to actual removal. Because pigment is deposited deeper than the epidermis (your top layer of skin), all you’d be doing is scraping up your arm. It may appear that you’re able to scrape some of the ink, but all you’d really be doing is causing potential cosmetic damage or opening a new wound—which you’d then have to spend time taking care of.
What Is Salabrasion?
Salabrasion is a dangerous, ineffective technique used in the pursuit of tattoo removal where a salt solution is rubbed onto the skin, removing the epidermis, leaving the skin red and raw. With time, the claim is that the skin will scale and fall off, taking the tattoo pigment with it.
“Destroying the skin makes for an uncontrolled environment,” agrees James Tidwell, MD of Golden Coast Dermatology. “It may remove some of the ink, but the risk of scarring and infection is high.”
“There are numerous DIY tattoo removal creams on the market with a wide variety of herbal, botanical, medicinal, and whitening agents,” notes Collins. “All of these creams have one thing in common: inefficiency in removing tattoos.”
A simple internet search of at-home tattoo removal creams brings up pages of products promising to lighten tattoos by bleaching or even burning off the top layer of skin. Any effect you get from these creams, however, are most likely due to the whitening agents in the mix that damage the skin itself, rather than the tattoo pigment, warns Collins.
DIY removal creams also present a real danger for a number of reasons. For some people, the harm may be developing a severe allergic reaction called contact dermatitis. For others, though, these at-home creams might cause chemical burn or scarring to the layer of skin it affects.
“Squeezing lemon onto the tattoo is similar to tattoo removal creams because the acidity of the lemon juice has a slight whitening effect on the skin itself,” said Dr. Collins. “Some of us may remember squeezing lemon on our hair before a day at the pool to lighten it slightly.”
That lightening effect we see on hair in the summer doesn’t do much for tattoos, though. The process is superficial and only works on the epidermis, so the actual tattoo pigment won't lighten considering it’s deposited much deeper within the skin. Plus, squeezing lemon juice on your skin and then going into the sun can cause a reaction called phytophotodermatitis that leads to weeks or months of hyperpigmentation, says Dr. Collins.
At-home Laser Treatments
While at-home laser treatments are becoming more popular and of better quality, the end result is often less than ideal because the lasers are much weaker than those in a clinical setting.
“Laser and light devices for home use have only a small fraction of the power and versatility of devices dermatologists use in the office,” explains Tidwell. “The lasers made for home use generally just can't penetrate at the depth needed to break up the tattoo pigment.”
Tidwell admits that even in the hands of a trained and experienced professional, lasers require advanced techniques to ensure the right type and strength are being used for the amount of tattoo removal a client is looking for. However, because these at-home lasers are so weak, Tidwell says there are no major risks associated with using them, so there’s no harm in trying. At best, though, these devices will have a very subtle effect on the skin.
Proper Tattoo Removal
Both Tidwell and Collins agree that the best and least harmful way to get a tattoo removed is by a professional in a clinical setting. The preferred method among doctors and patients is removal with lasers, which works by targeting the ink in your skin and breaking it up into small pieces that can be processed and naturally removed by your body.
At-home tattoo removal methods are trying to do the same thing as clinical applications: to remove the pigment particles trapped in the skin. However, these DIY processes may open up your skin (literally!) to the risk of infection, scarring, and permanent discoloration, so it’s recommended you stay away from at-home removal altogether and instead turn to the professionals.
"I'd again like to stress doing it the right way," urges Tidwell. “If you are unsure about a method, ask a dermatologist. Trying various things off of Instagram can put your skin at risk. Make sure to know the risks of each treatment and what side effects it could do before starting it."