Maybe it was after a wild night on the town, maybe you did it on a dare, or maybe you thought it was true love, only to discover otherwise. Whatever the reason, you now have a tattoo you don’t want, and you need to figure out how to get rid of it.
Tattoos and the Skin
The skin has an outer layer, a middle layer, and an inner layer. The outer layer, called the epidermis, is made of flat cells stacked on top of each other. Over time, the cells of the skin's upper layer naturally wear away and new cells take their place. You can also boost this natural sloughing off of the epidermis by manually scrubbing the skin to speed up exfoliation. This is why, if you stain only the surface of your skin with ink or henna, the stain wears or washes off over time. The middle layer, or dermis, does not wear away. Traditional tattooing injects ink into the middle layer of the skin, which makes the tattoo permanent.
The only way to remove a tattoo is to penetrate to the middle layer of the skin to break up the ink that’s embedded there. In the past, the only way to get to that middle layer of the skin was with laser treatments. The problem with laser treatments is that they are expensive, and can cause changes in your skin pigment and texture, as well as scarring. Chemical peels can be a more affordable alternative to laser removal, with less scarring or pigmentation changes.
How Chemical Peels Work
Chemical peels typically affect the top layer your skin, but can reach partially into the middle layer. The top layer of skin can be sloughed away much faster with chemical peels than it can with normal wear or regular exfoliation.
Because the peel does reach some of the middle layer, a single application can remove a small amount of tattoo ink. There are two different types of chemicals used for tattoo removal: Trichloroacetic acid (TCA) and Phenol.
Trichloroacetic Acid (TCA)
TCA is mild chemical peel that can remove tattoos after several applications. You can purchase TCA online from various retailers, and apply it yourself. It usually takes three months or more of chemical peel treatments to remove a tattoo completely, depending on the depth, size and color of the tattoo—some colors are harder to remove than others.
The downside to TCA is that, because it is a self-applied product, it’s easy to use a product that’s too strong, use too much of the product, or to not wait long enough between applications – all of which can cause skin discoloration and scarring.
TCA peels retail for $50 and up, per bottle, but each bottle may contain several applications, depending on the size of the tattoo.
Phenol Tattoo Removal
Phenol penetrates more deeply than TCA, and removes tattoos much more quickly. Because Phenol is a much stronger product, there’s a greater risk of loss of pigmentation and scarring. For this reason, phenol must be applied by a professional in a clinical setting. There is also a greater risk of pain and irritation from this process. Prices for phenol peels vary by provider, so do your research.