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WSJ Tattoo Removal Article

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Some "kits" from the wall street journal.

Home Remedies to Fade Your Heart on Your Sleeve


A tattoo seemed like a good idea at the time, but now you want it gone. Home tattoo-removal products are being marketed as effective ways to fade unwanted tattoos at a fraction of the cost of laser removal. Doctors say home methods at best will likely lighten the tattoo—and at worst, one remedy can cause severe burns.

According to a 2008 paper published in the Archives of Dermatology, the main reasons people cite for wanting to remove tattoos are embarrassment, body-image issues and a new job or career. Many people added they are tired of their tattoos or felt that they had grown up since getting them.

Laser tattoo removal is effective in most cases, but can take three to 10 treatments, or more, and can run into the thousands of dollars. At-home tattoo-removal products use a variety of techniques. Some, such as one sold by LLC, involve a chemical skin-peeling agent called trichloroacetic acid. Others are creams with skin-bleaching agents. A third category involves kits using exfoliators and other products to slough off the layer of skin covering the tattoo before treating it.

Dermatologists are skeptical of the home products. "Where they are really effective, they are probably risky for home use. Where they are not risky, they are probably also less effective," says David J. Leffell, a professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

In order to work, a tattoo-removal product must actually injure the skin down to the dermis, or under layer, Dr. Leffell says. One of the few home products that has been tested in published literature is trichloroacetic acid. TCA produces a chemical burn which, after it heals, in theory results in a lighter tattoo.

In a 1988 study of 670 patients with unwanted tattoos, two British doctors found 85% of patients got what the scientists called an "acceptable" result after one to three treatments. The study didn't specify what was an acceptable result. But in that study, a 95% solution of the chemical was applied by clinicians, and patients wore gauze bandages over the wound during healing and a compression support for at least three months after healing. Treatment included a visit to the doctor a week later, and, as necessary, to change the bandages. Even with those precautions, the study reports some patients, described as "less than 1%" of the group, didn't heal properly after the burns and had to have skin grafts after the treatment.

For patients using TCA at home, doctors warn of serious risks. In a March letter to the editor of the journal ePlasty, doctors describe the case of a 26-year-old man who applied a home remedy advertised as "100% TCA" and received a serious burn that required a surgical skin graft. Inkbusters, which sells one-ounce bottles of a 50% strength solution for $40, recommends diluting it to a 12.5% solution for the first attempt. The company, which recommends never using stronger than a 25% solution, says it has never received an injury report. Inkbusters hasn't done a clinical study, but says customer experience suggests that with one application every six weeks, a professional tattoo will be about 70% lighter in 12 to 18 months.

Some companies claim skin-bleaching agents, such as hydroquinone or alpha arbutin, a natural whitener are safer. Dermatologists say those products are likely to be ineffective, as the agents bleach skin pigment, not tattoo pigments. The Food and Drug Administration has called for study of the safety of hydroquinone, which has been linked to cancer when taken orally in rodents and which can cause unintentional darkening of the skin when used topically.

Another tattoo removal method involves exfoliating the skin or using an abrasion tool that removes the top layer. One popular brand is Wrecking Balm, sold by Preval Health LLC of Portland, Maine, and sold in a kit of 12 applications at Wal-Mart for $50. The product includes a "suffusion gel," made up largely of botanical products, which is used while buffing the skin with a mechanical device. Preval says it has studies that show the product works, but declined to provide them for this article, stating they are "proprietary."

San Diego dermatologist Kenneth G. Gross says any product that causes trauma to the skin can help fade a tattoo by creating irritation and inflammation, which can result in breakdown of the ink. While he hasn't tested any of the home products, he says their effect is likely to be small.

Write to Aches & Claims at

The Wall Street Journal

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