Debunking the Semi-Permanent Tattoo Myth

woman with a small tattoo on her side rib

Danil Nevsky/Stocksy

We're guessing you’ve probably heard of the semi-permanent tattoo–the one that only lasts six weeks or six months. Or was that six years? No one seems to knows for sure, because it can’t be done. However, what can be done is buy some stock footage of pretty people sporting hip tattoos or hang a sign saying you're a tattooist who offers temporary inked art. 

Lately, we've been wondering why people want a semi-permanent tattoo to begin with. So, we did the research and discovered studies that have found some 78 percent of people with tattoos regret at least one of them. Tattoo regret is very real and it's easy to see why the idea one with a short lifespan is so appealing to so many people. 

Is There Really Such a Thing as a Non-Committal Tattoo?

The fact is, when you insert tattoo ink under the skin, it's there for good because essentially, you're "digging" into the skin. Yes, the ink may fade over time, but it won't disappear—ever. There is no magical ink that fades completely after a predetermined length of time.

Some tattoo artists will say that they tattoo the ink so lightly that it doesn't become permanent. As though somehow it's only embedded into a temporary layer of skin that will wash away, much like applying rinse to color one's hair. Except that a hair rinse will indeed fade after about two months because it rinses out with shampooing.

Similarly, that "semi-permanent" ink promise might be a bit of a misnomer. "It is impossible to guarantee how long any semi-permanent tattoo will last due to various skin types/textures, sun exposure, facial products and lifestyle," says Shaughnessy Otsjui, founder of Studio Sashiko.

What the Professionals Have to Say

Consider this: the human body has three main layers of skin, and most tattoos are embedded into the second layer. However, if you only go into the first layer of skin (which would require surgical if not magical precision) the ink may indeed fade but it won't fade evenly and will never fade completely. If you went this route, you'd be left with an unsightly half-tattoo with splotches of ink that will look like they were haphazardly applied here and there.

As Otsjui explains, most inks used in semi-permanent makeup are intended to fade over time, but there are a few reasons why ink can stick around much longer than desired. "Thin, dry or damaged skin has the potential to hold onto pigment for much longer than oily skin that regenerates regularly," Otsjui says. "If a tattoo artist over works the skin causing scarring or if the pigment is implanted too deep into the skin, it may not fade as quickly as the client may be expecting."

Otsjui recommends a safe alternative, such as stick-on tattoos. "Nowadays, companies like INKBOX offer an innovative version of the temporary tattoos we used to use as kids," Otsjui says. "Their semi-permanent tattoos are realistic, skin-safe, easy to apply and can last up to two weeks. They are designed to gradually fade over time instead of peeling and crumbling like temporary tattoos tend to."

The Sucker Scam

Basically, the art of the semi-permanent is nothing but a scam. Stick-on tattoos are temporary (and last three to seven days) and henna art is temporary (and lasts two to four weeks), and tattoos are permanent. Those are the only real choices you have. But keep in mind that even some of the truly temporary choices also come with risks. The FDA, for instance, has received reports of allergic reactions to temporary tattoos that contain henna or hair dye, and some even resulted in scarring.

I recently visited a website promoting its semi-permanent tattoos that are guaranteed to stay on—and look good—for up to seven weeks and then disappear. There was even an image of how you can easily apply your own tattoo at home. There was also a promotion at the bottom of the page promising to send you $100-worth of free tattoo ink if you submit your email. This site, and many others like it, scream scam. 

Your best bet: do your due diligence before getting any kind of ink, even if it's marketed as "semi-permanent." (And be sure to check if your tattoo artist is certified or licensed by the state, as laws regarding tattoos vary across the country).

"It's important to look for portfolio photos of healed semi-permanent tattoos on different skin types to have a better idea of what to expect," Otsjui says. In the end, if you are not prepared to keep your tattoo for the rest of your life, you'd be better off not getting one at all.

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