What Happened To Ephemeral Tattoo & Their “Disappearing” Ink?

Photo: Courtesy of Hillary Sussman.
Hillary Sussman, a comedy writer based in LA, had a funny habit of screenshotting tiny tattoos she liked but never actually getting them. She was especially fond of a “cute and spooky” fine-line tattoo of two ghosts that lived in her camera roll but not on her body. “I thought, if I were to get a tattoo one day, this is what I'd want,” Sussman explains.
Luckily 2021 gave us the advent of one of the most exciting innovations in the modern-day tattoo industry: disappearing ink. Once Sussman learned about Ephemeral, the brand engineering novel tattoo ink that disappears over time, and that there was a studio in downtown LA, she booked in right away for the tattoo she’d been dreaming about. “That's been the thing that's been holding me back from getting any tattoos, just like the permanence of it,” explains Sussman. 
Sussman is one of over 20,000 people who have been tattooed with Ephemeral’s made-to-fade ink. Zoe Weiner, a beauty and wellness journalist based in New York City, is another. Unlike Sussman, Weiner had prior experience with permanent tattoos. “But for this one, I really wanted to do something that felt more like body art, something that would be more visible and that I could show off,” Weiner explains of what influenced her to book into Ephemeral’s flagship Williamsburg studio in April of 2022.
Ephemeral's Williamsburg Studio advertising the tagline: Regret Nothing
For both Sussman and Weiner, the promise that Ephemeral's ink would disappear made them more impulsive. “I didn't think too much about the design,” explains Weiner. “I was like, I want a moon because my dog is named Luna, and I'll get some stars because I thought that seemed fun.” Weiner ended up with a moon-and-stars design across her rib cage. “It stretches from right below my boobs to my hips. You can't see it in normal clothes, but in a bathing suit — or I wear a lot of crop tops — you can definitely see it.” Sussman opted to put her minimalist ghost tattoo on her inner forearm, “which feels like a chic place to get a tattoo,” she says.

“That's been the thing that's been holding me back from getting any tattoos, just like the permanence of it.”

Hillary Sussman, Ephemeral Customer
I’m also in this niche Ephemeral Tattoo Club. I got an Ephemeral tattoo back in February 2022. Similar to Weiner, I had two tattoos prior to visiting Ephemeral so I knew what to expect from a tattoo experience (the cost and pain are the same), but a temporary ink made me act more irrationally. I’ll get something I like but would never get permanently, I thought. The night before my appointment, I searched ‘tiny arm tattoos’ on Pinterest. I found a ‘C’est la vie’ in cursive script and the design, placement (on the outer wrist), and meaning, such is life, resonated. So I got it tattooed on the outside of my left arm. It’s visible any time my elbows are on the table. And yes, 22 months later, it’s still there — seven months after it should have completely faded.
Photo: Courtesy of Megan Decker.
Ephemeral tattoo at Month 22
Photo: Courtesy of Megan Decker.
Ephemeral tattoo at Month 1
That’s the root of the controversy around Ephemeral: Some tattoos are not fading as fast or as evenly as expected.

What is the Ephemeral tattoo controversy?

What happened at Ephemeral can be summarized as a marketing fumble. Essentially the brand’s original claim, that tattoos would fully fade between nine and 15 months, was offbase. Which was found out as early Ephemeral clients started complaining that at the 15-month mark, their tattoos were maybe fading but not faded.
This led to an onslaught of articles like, "Ephemeral Tattoos Were ‘Made to Fade.' Some Have a Ways to Go" from the New York Times, "Made to fade? Two years later my Ephemeral tattoo isn’t so temporary" in Dazed Digital, and "One temporary tattoo startup tells customers to ‘regret nothing.’ Now, some have regrets" in the San Francisco Chronicle. One disappointed customer created a public Reddit forum titled “They Do Not Fade.” "My friends and I got Ephemeral tattoos last year,” wrote the Redditor. “It has been 13 to 15-plus months for each of us. They look about the same as they did [on] month 2-3 — which, by the way, was never good."
So, how did this happen? The founding team — of Ph.D. chemical engineers (not tattoo artists) — had worked on this ink for six years prior to launch. Their challenge was not how do we get it to fade as fast as possible, but actually the opposite. “Getting a tattoo to disappear is in fact, not that difficult,” explains Ephemeral CEO Jeff Liu who came onto the brand in 2020 to help bring it to market. “Getting a tattoo that disappears over a long period of time and is very black, vibrant with ink that's usable for a tattoo artist, is actually very hard.”
According to Liu, the team behind Ephemeral stood behind their nine to 15-month claim. They did their due diligence. When formulating the ink, Ephemeral used only FDA-approved ingredients. Fun fact: The FDA doesn’t actually regulate the tattoo industry, so the FDA involvement in Ephemeral’s formulation process was an elective safety decision. “Prior to launch, we executed a number of clinical studies,” adds Liu. “In all of our clinical studies, we found that the fade time would be between nine to 15 months.”
Unfortunately, as more people were getting tattooed with Ephemeral ink, it got more complicated. Variables like size, placement, artist technique all proved to impact the longevity of the Ephemeral ink and how long it takes a body to break it down.
For example, Liu isn’t shocked that my tattoo, on the outside of my wrist, is taking its sweet time to disappear. "The more removed the placement is from your core, the slower it fades," Liu explains. "Like on your wrist, that area fades a lot slower because there is less blood flow going out there." (If I understood this prior to my appointment I might have thought twice about the wrist placement.)
The body’s metabolic process is at play in the fading process, too. Ephemeral ink borrows its technology from medical-grade polymers, like the kind used in dental sutures. If you’ve had your wisdom teeth removed, you might remember the black ‘X’s on your back gums that dissolved over the course of a few weeks — that’s the general idea. "Removing the ink is a function of [the body's] immune response," explains Liu. "Water causes the initial degradation [of the ink] and then your immune response kicks in and starts to remove it because it's a foreign body. Then it gets processed through your lymphatic system and gets expelled."

“We definitely have customers disappointed. It's important for me to take responsibility for that.”

Jeff Liu, Ephemeral CEO
Every single body is different so there’s always going to be some level of variability. For Sussman, at month 13, her ghost tattoo has faded quite a bit. “The exterior portion has faded more than the interior,” she explains. “It's not totally even, but you can still see the whole thing, so it doesn't look funny.” Weiner’s tattoo is 20 months (or a year and 8 months) old and is just now fading. “In the last month or so I've noticed more fading,” she explains. "It is pretty light now. The stars are really small and I think some of them are gone, but some of them are still there. I need to go back and compare it to what it looked like originally."
Personally, my 22-month Ephemeral tattoo has faded and the wording is a little blurry. I’m not upset that it’s still with me — it makes good first date or fun-fact fodder — but I do wish the claim had been broader from the beginning.

Do Ephemeral tattoos fade completely?

Yes, Ephemeral guarantees the tattoos will fade, it just may require more patience than expected. 
Liu recognizes the mistake made with the original marketing claim. “We definitely have customers disappointed,” says Liu. “It's important for me to take responsibility for that.” Ephemeral reactively adjusted their fade claim from nine to 15 months to one to three years. While some people may fade faster, the broader and longer range sets a more accurate expectation. “It's important for us to hear the feedback, have that conversation, and use that feedback to get better over time,” Liu explains. “Our newest fade durations reflect that.” In outlier cases where an Ephemeral tattoo is still visible after three years, the company guarantees a refund.
According to Liu, every Ephemeral tattoo should fade within the one to three year timeframe. “Our range of within three years certainly accounts for everyone,” he assures me. “We run a lot of studies on these hypotheses.” In fact, the ink has improved a lot over the past few years. “I can safely say that customers who have gotten a tattoo this year will see a lot less variability than our early customers,” says Liu. That seems to track in our small case study. Sussman’s tattoo, which is newer than mine, seems to be fading at a faster, more even rate.
Photo: Courtesy of Hillary Sussman.
Ephemeral tattoo at Month 13
Photo: Courtesy of Hillary Sussman.
Ephemeral tattoo at Month 1
I’m not nervous about my tattoo never fading, neither is Sussman nor Weiner. “The way mine is looking now, I think it'll be gone in the next six months to a year,” says Weiner. “In the first year it didn't fade at all, so I was getting a little bit nervous. But now I'm like, it'll go away eventually it's just taking longer than expected.”
Sussman is happy for the fading process to extend to three years. She’s using the time to decide if she wants to make her disappearing ghost tattoo permanent. “I don't really mind that it's still there,” she says. “The longer it's there and the more it fades, I'm like, maybe I want to make this permanent because I'm going to miss it when it's gone.”

“The brand is ruined but the ink is still good.”

Zoe Weiner, Ephemeral Customer
But what if you got an Ephemeral tattoo, it’s not fading as expected and you can’t wait three years? You could try a tattoo removal laser. “Lasers have in some cases been effective,” says Liu. “I've done laser on myself on our tattoos, and it has an effect for sure.” However, there’s no guarantee it will work to fully remove Ephemeral ink. “[Laser hasn’t been] effective in enough cases where we'd say it works for everyone,” Liu adds. 

Is Ephemeral tattoo closing?

Despite the drama, demand for the Ephemeral tattoo was on the rise in 2023. “We did over 1,000 tattoos in the month of August,” says Liu, which was the brand’s most successful month to date. “They seemed to be doing so well,” commented Weiner. However, like many consumer companies, Ephemeral had to contend with harsh conditions, like rising interest rates and the venture capital funding drought.
In September of this year, Ephemeral announced it was closing its studios. Customers received an email and the brand posted a "New Chapter" update on Instagram.
Big investment was put into the brick-and-mortar Ephemeral studios — all eight of which were thoughtfully curated and designed to reflect the culture of their respective city — as well as the Ephemeral tattoo artists. An important point: Ephemeral was providing its tattoo artists guaranteed income as W2 employees, which is almost unheard of in an industry where more artists are working in a competitive shop environment or in a freelance capacity. The ambitious goals were costly.
“It's not a big secret and it's not embarrassing but we've never been profitable,” Liu explains of the state of the business. “It was very hard for me to make the decision to close our studios, but it's either that or the brand would not have capital or funding to live into the next iteration”

Can I still get an Ephemeral tattoo?

Now, Ephemeral is not disappearing. You will still be able to get an Ephemeral tattoo, you’ll just have to go through a tattoo artist who has the ink.
“While it was hard and sad for us to close our studios, we also felt the product was ready to be distributed directly to artists,” explains Liu. “Now that we've done over 20,000 tattoos and we've had a lot of artist feedback, the product is just leaps and bounds better and now we can sell it to tattoo artists anywhere in the country and anywhere in the world. Most of the artists that we're launching with are Ephemeral artists. So we feel proud that we are delivering on our promise to try and create financial security and earnings for our tattoo artists, the ones that were so loyal and committed for day one.”
Ephemeral also announced an exciting medical partnership with Henry Ford Health: Ephemeral ink is going to be used in radiation therapy treatment. Traditionally, a radiation patient — like someone with breast cancer — will need a tiny tattoo for the radiologist to demarcate the treatment area. Permanent ink has been the most common way to demarcate and that's because temporary tattoos and henna can only last a couple of weeks and the treatment period is usually closer to six or eight weeks, rendering permanent ink the only option. Now, with Ephemeral ink available, patients and survivors won’t have to live with the often-painful reminder of their treatment, as their radiation tattoo will fade in one to three years. There are global estimates of about 3.5 million patients a year that receive radiotherapy treatment, so this is going to help millions.
Liu calls it “a happy accident,” that the medical-grade polymers are able to be put towards medical use. “We didn't realize this was an opportunity when we launched, if I'm being perfectly honest,” says Liu. “We were just excited about offering this recreationally. But we kept hearing from survivors coming in asking, ‘hey, have you considered doing this?’”
I mention Ephemeral’s new medical application to Weiner. “Oh that's amazing — that's good,” she says. “The brand is ruined but the ink is still good.”
I laugh but I have to agree. While the future of tattooing may not include Ephemeral Studios, it will include temporary ink. It's my vision that someday, not too far from now, when someone compliments my tattoo or any tattoo, the follow up question will be: Is it permanent or temporary? We can thank Ephemeral for that.

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