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

Men's health

Posted on 03/07/20

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 I like it.

I’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 do 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 touches your skin every single day. Granted, the UV index (as it is called) might be weaker at certain times of the year, but UV is always present in daylight. It is even present when it’s cloudy or in the winter. In fact, just to emphasise the point, up to 85% of UV rays pass through cloud cover.

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.

The conclusion: Expose your tattoos without some way of blocking UV rays and your tattoo will fade under your nose. Not to scare you, it will take years and years, but it will fade.

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 I admit. Particularly if you want people to see your great work.

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

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

However, this option does allow you to (1) show off your magnificent artwork, (2) help reduce the fading process of your tattoos and (3) protect you from skin damage, like skin cancer. 

An alternative source of harmful UV rays is tanning beds. For multiple reasons, this should be avoided altogether and I’ll be posting an article on this very soon. 

The fundamentals. Skin cancer.

This is a big problem.

Please, please do not ignore this section just because it isn’t about tattoos. It is.

Skin cancer amongst men is a growing force. 

Almost two men die of skin cancer for every one woman in North America,  Australasia and many European countries. Countries you wouldn’t expect like Switzerland, Scandinavia and the UK. 

The rate of growth over the past twenty years is frightening. Once diagnosed, survival rates are lower than female survival rates because discovery was often so late.

At the same time, we have all seen the tremendous 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 my research tells me. However, tattooed skin may often make it easier to miss the development of skin abnormalities because a dark ink may be concealing something. So, I would recommend extra vigilance when it comes to inspecting your skin and extra vigilance when it comes to protecting your skin.

With the depressing bit over, now for the practical part.

How to care for a fresh tattoo.

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 are trying to do it keep the area clean and avoid infection. A healthy, well-healed tattoo will last years provided you are diligent during this incredibly important phase.

Caveat: Every artist gives different advice. Everybody who has had a tattoo has different experiences. This is 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. Do not cake it on. Just a thin layer. And only once for now.

Day 2 – 21

  • You may now be experiencing scabs and/or itching. Do not scratch or pick the skin. Let the skin peel and fall away naturally. You are 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 cream. 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 me to advise you on what works for you.

However, I 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 are in the market for a way to preserve the life and beauty of your tattoo then 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 cream with SPF 30 protection (as a minimum) and one that protects against UVA. There is no such thing as a sunscreen for tattoos. That’s marketing nonsense. Any good sun care product will work.
  • For tattooed skin, I would recommend a product that you physically rub in. It’s quite often to spray and miss. You might think you’ve got good skin coverage but you haven’t
  • Different colours of tattoo ink fade at different rates over their lifetimes. Black/grey tattoos hold up against the sun the best whilst white tattoos and white highlighting doesn’t hold up very well at all against UV rays. Colours in between vary when it comes fading. Be wary of this when applying sun protection
  • Please don’t use tanning lotions. You’re basically summoning UV onto your skin without protection
  • I always bang the drum about year-round sun 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
  • If you do get caught outside without protection, go and find some shade. Never underestimate the sun. Even in the winter or on a cloudy day
  • Being in water or up a mountain can greatly amplify the impact of UV due to the reflection factor. Basically, you’re being hit twice from different angles (once from the sun and again from the reflection off water or snow)

Guys – nothing looks better than a really cool tattoo – make sure yours stays that way.

Hope that was helpful and as always, thanks so much for reading.