Sun Damage and Your Tattoo

With summer in full swing, it’s the perfect time to show off your ink and catch some sun! But before you hit the beach, be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen if you want your tattoos to look good all year long. Today we’re considering the ways the sun can impact your tattoos, whether they’re brand new or decades old—and we’re offering some easy solutions both to prevent and deal with sun damage.

Phase 1: The Sun and Your New Tattoo

Aftercare is a critical time for your new tattoo, for a number of reasons. A fresh tattoo is essentially an open wound, which means that cleanliness is imperative; moisturization is likewise important in helping skin heal with minimal itching and irritation.

But did you know that protecting your new ink from the sun is just a important as keeping it clean and moisturized? A sunburn on a fresh tattoo is particularly damaging: Because recently tattooed skin is already tender, a sunburn can significantly inflame any redness, itching, or dryness. It can even lead to blistering of the exposed tissue. A mildly irritated tattoo can become a weepy, swollen, painful disaster if exposed to the sun—all of which can lead to increased scabbing and even infection, which in turn can cause the ink to “fall out” of your tattoo.

To avoid irritation and help your tattoo heal beautifully:

  1. Keep your tattoo covered up when you’re outside with light, clean clothing that is not itchy or otherwise irritating. Clothing with built-in SPF is a plus!

  2. Minimize your time in the sun if you can’t keep your tattoo covered for any reason.

  3. Don’t use sunscreen on a new tattoo: It’s an open wound, and sunscreen can be extremely irritating!

  4. DON’T SWIM! We know it’s the perfect way to cool off on a hot day, but don’t do it. Go enjoy the A/C inside or drink an iced tea instead.

Phase 2: Sun Damage and Long-Term Maintenance

Once you’ve gotten through the initial healing phase, you’re in the clear for a number of activities (including swimming!). You don’t have to alter your daily routine in terms of physical activity or clothing, and you don’t need to worry in general about infection or irritation.

But sun damage is still a significant threat to your tattoo—and it will be for the rest of your life.

The sun’s threat to your ink is two-fold.

  1. UV rays break down the pigments found in tattoo ink. This can cause them to fade more quickly than if protected from the sun.

  2. A sunburn causes your skin to peel in order to get rid of damaged skin cells. This accelerated peeling can pull out tattoo ink, which can contribute to your tattoo looking faded.

You may have considered how your tattoo will age when you first got it done. There is a lot of back-and-forth in the industry about the types of tattoos that age well, but there’s one thing that we all can agree on: A properly protected tattoo will age significantly better than one that is exposed to sun damage, regardless of the style of tattoo. It’s arguably true that color tattoos can appear to fade more quickly than blackwork or black-and-grey pieces, especially if the colors were particularly vibrant to begin with—but even a blackwork piece can lose its crispness if not protected, especially considering that black ink attracts the sunlight more than lighter colors. In any case, all pigments are susceptible to UV damage and peeling, which means that sun damage on any piece can lead to a muddying of details and make a tattoo difficult to “read.”

Placement can be a factor to consider when thinking of long-term sun damage. If a tattoo on your side won’t see the sun as much as a tattoo on your forearm, then naturally it will age more gracefully even without taking precautions. Foot tattoos in particular are a good example of this: In sunny California, it’s easy to throw on flipflops or sandals without stopping to think of sunscreen, and a tattoo on the top of the foot can fade significantly before you realize just how much sun damage it’s gotten over the course of a summer.

But don’t let that limit you! If you’re interested in a tattoo in a highly visible area, you can keep it looking fresh with a little bit of effort:

  1. Wear sunscreen or a cover-up when you’re in the sun! We can’t stress this enough. Choose a sunscreen with a good SPF, preferably one that won’t irritate your skin, or look for clothing that has SPF built into the fabric.

  2. Apply sunscreen or wear a cover-up even when you don’t think you need to. Sun damage is cumulative, which means all of the little trips outside add up. If you walk your dog several times a day, for example, you’re adding to your sun damage incrementally.

  3. Think about your sun exposure—and act accordingly. If you’re a weekend warrior when it comes to fun in the sun, you probably need to be more careful about sun damage on your days off than during your nine-to-five life. But if you’ve got a long commute during the week, that’s another story: You’d be amazed at how much sun damage you can get through the window of a car or bus.

Phase 3: The Sunburned Tattoo

It happens: We all make mistakes. Maybe it was at a friend’s barbecue, maybe it was during some unplanned yardwork—but you’re now looking at a tattoo that is lobster red from the sun.

If your tattoo is still in the aftercare stage and the sunburn is significant, we encourage you to reach out to your artist. Depending on the situation, we can advise you how to best handle the sun damage. In extreme cases involving blistering, it may be advisable to see your doctor.

If it’s an old tattoo, you’re not dealing with an open wound, which is good news—but you’re still at risk of damaging your tattoo, which is not such good news. Depending on how bad the sun damage is, your tattoo may or may not suffer from a single burn. Even if it looks damaged, a sunburned tattoo can possibly return to its usual condition once the skin has fully regenerated.

To help ease the pain and encourage your tattoo to recover, you can try the following—but again, these suggestions are for existing tattoos, not new ones:

  1. Cool your skin down with a cold shower or compress.

  2. Moisturize your tattoo. When you get a sunburn, your skin peels as damaged cells die off. This can pull out ink, which contributes to fading. Proper moisturization can help your skin recover from sun damage while potentially preventing ink loss. Choose a non-irritating moisturizer that is free of chemicals, or go all-natural with coconut oil or aloe.

  3. Drink plenty of water to help your skin re-hydrate. You’ll be surprised at how helpful this can be.

  4. Keep your tattoo covered. You might think that your sunburn is as bad as it can be—but trust us, it can get a lot worse. Throw on a cover-up of some kind while your tattoo recovers from the sunburn. If you can’t cover it up and it isn’t too irritated, use sunscreen.

  5. Don’t do it again! Once your tattoo has recovered, do what you can to prevent future burns. Again: Sun damage is cumulative. If your tattoo has bounced back from one bad sunburn, it might not fare so well the next time.

Please note that even if you’re dealing with an old tattoo, a serious sunburn might necessitate medical attention. If you’re blistered, nauseated, feverish, or dizzy, call your doctor!

Phase 4: Sun Damage and Significant Fading

Whether it’s from one major burn or years of sun damage, sometimes a tattoo just doesn’t look the way that it used to. Color, blackwork, and black-and-grey tattoos all can look blurry or faded after too much time in the sun. If you’re dealing with a piece that just isn’t up to snuff, there’s still hope in the form of a touch-up.

Our artists can give your tattoo a refresher that helps it look brand new. This might mean re-doing color, adding new lines, or touching up details in other skillful ways, depending on your artist’s perspective. In some more extreme cases, we might suggest a full-blown cover-up. We’ll be honest with you about what’s possible in your unique situation, and we’ll work with you to get your tattoo looking great again.

With a little bit of care, you can enjoy the summer without risking your ink—so grab your sunscreen or cover-up and go enjoy yourself! If you’d like to talk about your touch-up options, email us today to get scheduled for a consultation.

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