How to look after your tattoo in (and out of) the sun

This is your one-stop-shop for tattoo care.

The ultimate guide to looking after your awesome tattoos.

Your instruction manual to keeping them fresh and popping for as long as possible.

And that’s whether you’re in the sun or not.

As with many things, caring for a tattoo might seem overly complex and daunting. In reality, it’s incredibly simple and, as readers of this blog already know, that’s how we like it.

We’ll start with the fundamentals first and then the post will be divided into two parts:

  1. Caring for brand new tattoos (whether it’s your first or not), and
  2. Caring for established tattoos, both in and out of the sun.

The fundamentals. Why does a tattoo fade?

You already know this but when you got your tattoo, ink, dye or pigments were inserted deep into your skin.

The trouble is that those inks fade. Unfortunately, the sharp lines, detail and colours blur over time.

Nothing speeds up the fading process faster than ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. UV rays penetrate the skin and break up the pigment particles of your tattoo. Laser tattoo removal is ultimately an ultra-aggressive form of this.

The bit people seem to miss is that UV from the sun is present all year round, wherever you are. The sun reaches your skin every single day. In particular, UVA (which accounts for 95% of the UV that reaches us on earth) is broadly consistent in potency all year round. It even goes through cloud and glass.

Separately and perhaps more importantly, a UK study found that just under 90% of melanomas can be attributed to exposure to the sun’s UV rays. So, it’s not just about your ink, it’s also your health.

In conclusion, if you expose your tattoos to daylight without some way of blocking UV rays, then your tattoo will fade under your nose. It will take years and years but it will absolutely fade over time.

The fundamentals. How do I stop my tattoo from fading?

The simple way to block these rays reaching your skin is to cover them up with clothing. Not the most practical solution we understand. Particularly if you want people to see something you’re rightly proud of.

The more palatable solution (possibly) is to use a cream or moisturiser with added skin protection when any tattooed skin is exposed to daylight.

To reiterate a previous point, skin protection should be a consideration all year round and not just on your week’s holiday at the beach. We appreciate this option can be impractical and hard to implement all the time. Who walks around with sun cream everywhere they go?

But, this option will allow you to (1) show off your artwork, (2) help reduce the fading process of your tattoos and (3) protect you from skin damage, like premature ageing, dryness, redness, itchiness all the way to skin cancer. 

An alternative source of harmful UV rays is tanning beds. For multiple reasons, they should be avoided at all cost. 

The fundamentals. Skin cancer.

This section shouldn’t be ignored just because it isn’t about tattoos.

Skin cancer is the world’s most common cancer and is forecast to double over the next 20 years. 

At the same time, we’ve all seen the growth and social acceptance in recent times when it comes to tattoos. In the UK, 29% of 16-44 year olds have tattoos. In the USA, the percentage of the total population with tattoos increased from 21% to 29% over the last four years.

Somebody with tattoos is no more or less likely to suffer from skin cancer as far as our research tells us. However, tattooed skin may often make it easier to miss the development of skin abnormalities because a dark ink may be concealing something. So, we’d recommend extra vigilance when it comes to inspecting (and protecting) your skin.

How to care for a fresh tattoo.

Now for the practical bit…

Getting a tattoo requires the skin barrier to be broken. Effectively, this creates a raw, open wound on your skin.

In the first few weeks after a new tattoo, all you’re trying to do is keep the area clean and avoid infection. A healthy, well-healed tattoo will last years provided you’re diligent during this important phase.

Every artist gives different advice and everybody who’s had a tattoo has a different experience but here’s a consistently, sensible approach:

Day 1

  • The skin will feel like you have really bad sun burn at this point
  • Leave the bandage on for 1-2 hours maximum. The skin needs to regenerate and breathe after this and you don’t want anything to be trapped under the bandage and cause an infection
  • Wash the skin carefully with tepid water. Test a patch and if your skin can handle it, try to use a mild, antibacterial, unscented soap. The fewer chemicals the better which is why unscented or fragrance-free soap is critical
  • Carefully pat the skin dry with paper towel. Not the kind that will stick to your skin. And not the kind that is too abrasive. Don’t rub dry. Dab.
  • Apply a pea-sized amount of moisturiser to the wound. Whatever your tattoo artist recommends. Hand cream is often a good option. Some people swear by coconut oil. Like the soap, an unscented or fragrance-free moisturiser is key. Don’t cake it on. Just a thin layer. And only once for now.

Day 2 – 21

  • You may now be experiencing scabs and/or itching. Don’t scratch or pick the skin. Let the skin peel and fall away naturally. You’re waiting for dead skin to shed so the tattoo can shine.
  • Keep the tattoo clean with soap and water at all times. Do this as often as necessary. If you think the skin may have picked up dirt for any reason, wash it.
  • Dry the tattoo. Moisturise no more than 3-4 times a day. Same rules as on day 1
  • Under no circumstances should the tattoo be exposed to sunlight. Even with sun screen on it. Just don’t do it. Sunlight and/or sun protection products are too much for the skin to handle at this stage
  • Under no circumstances should the tattoo be soaked in water (bath, swimming, sea, sauna etc.). Splashing and washing is OK.
  • Continue this routine until fully healed (usually 2-3 weeks). You’ll know because the tattoo will have completely scabbed and peeled.

TIP: If you’re reading this before taking the plunge, think about the timing of your tattoo. If you know you want it to be ‘ready’ for a particular event, give yourself three weeks for the skin to heal from the point you actually get the tattoo. Work back from there.

How to care for an established tattoo.

Day to day, there’s not much to it. You don’t need us to advise you on what works for you.

However, we do want to dwell on the matter of sun exposure.

We know that UV rays from the sun penetrate the skin and break up the pigment particles in your tattoo. Come to think of it, this includes UV rays in general and that includes tanning beds.

Therefore, if you’re keen to preserve the life and beauty of your tattoo, you need to be really careful around the sun and, for multiple reasons, you need to avoid tanning beds altogether.

Here are a few tips:

  • If your tattoos are exposed to sunlight, use a sun screen with a minimum of SPF 30 and one that protects against UVA. There’s no such thing as a sunscreen for tattoos. That’s marketing nonsense. Any good sunscreen will work.
  • For tattooed skin, we’d would recommend a product that you physically rub in. With aerosols, it’s quite easy to spray and miss. You might think you’ve got good skin coverage but you may not have
  • Different colours of tattoo ink fade at different rates over their lifetimes. Black/grey tattoos hold up the best whilst white tattoos and white highlighting doesn’t hold up very well against UV rays. Colours in between vary when it comes to fading. Be wary of this when applying skin protection
  • Don’t use tanning lotions. You’re effectively summoning UV onto your skin without protection
  • We always bang on the drum of year-round skin protection. If you have a tattoo anywhere above your shoulders, why not use a daily facial moisturiser with SPF protection? You can apply in the morning before you go out and you’re done
  • Don’t forget about protecting tattoos in areas you can’t see or reach. Two thirds of skin cancer cases in men are on the chest and back – two common areas for tattoos

A really cool tattoo can look great. We hope this post helps you keep yours looking good for as long as possible while also giving you something to think about when it comes to your skin health.

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