Whether you’re rocking one of your first tattoos or are on the prowl to add another design to your growing sleeve, you likely know that how you take care of it once it’s on your body is imperative for keeping your lines crisp, colors vibrant, and the design looking fresh for years to come. Any tattoo artist will preach about the importance of aftercare, which includes washing the area and moisturizing it for the months after getting jabbed. In the midst of a new tattoo high, healing your work of art may be all that you think about, but after applying plenty of moisturizers and occlusives to heal the skin, sunscreen for your tattoo is going to be an essential part of your new skin and body care routine.
But, as with all new things, they eventually become old, and you might slowly forget about taking care of your tattoo once the initial flaking phase is complete. After all, it’ll be on your skin forever, and you don’t really need to take care of something with permanence, correct? Well, here’s the catch: tattoo ink tends to break down and fade with prolonged exposure to UV light, meaning that aftercare will last you your entire life. Tattoo artists and dermatologists more often than not wax poetic about sunscreen as an integral part of any tattoo aftercare routine, especially during the warmer months.
So, which SPF formulas are best for your tattoos in order to keep them looking vibrant? Here’s what the pros have to say.
What Makes Sunscreen For Tattoos So Crucial?
Let’s backtrack for a moment: what causes tattoo ink to fade in the sunlight in the first place? Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a board-certified dermatologist and SVP of the Skin Cancer Foundation explains, "inks, in general, degrade over time, and ultraviolet exposure can accelerate the breakdown of pigment and thereby increase your macrophage degradation." (Macrophage degradation is the scientific term for the process that your white blood cells go through to attack any foreign objects in your body — in the case of a fading tattoo, those foreign objects are ink particles).
In addition to speeding up the rate at which your body will naturally try to fight off any tattoo, the damage that UV light can create depends on a tattoo's age. "When a tattoo is exposed to direct and/or prolonged sun exposure without sunscreen, it causes the tattoo to have several reactions depending on the stage of said tattoo," says Aja-Noelle, a tattoo artist at Ephemeral Tattoo's LA studio. "If it is a freshly done tattoo, it can cause severe blistering and cause the ink not to take hold. On the other hand, if the tattoo is somewhat to mostly healed, sun exposure can cause the ink to fade or look bleached out." Aja-Noelle compares it to leaving a colored t-shirt on your car's dashboard, where it can fade in the sun over time.
How Different Inks Respond To Sunlight
So, if UV radiation can cause a tattoo to fade, then that means that your intricate sleeve full of bright yellow and intense blacks will fade uniformly, right? Well, not exactly. "Some inks fade more quickly than others. For example, light-colored inks tend to fade faster than dark-colored inks,” explains Macrene Alexiades, MD PhD FAAD, and founder of Macrene Actives. “White pastel ink is regarded to fade the fastest, but black and gray ink can also fade over time if not adequately protected."
Aja-Noelle adds to this and says that blue ink will turn greenish with prolonged UV exposure, and yellows or any color with a yellow undertone will turn brown. In addition, blacks and grays turn greenish-blue over time.
But fading isn't the only thing you should be concerned about when exposing your tattoo to the sun without adequate UV protection. Dr. Hale mentions, "certain tattoo pigments, like red, tend to be pro-inflammatory, and the trauma of a tattoo combined with overexposure to the sun is thought to potentially increase your risk of certain skin cancers like keratoacanthoma."
Top Sunscreen Tips To Protect Your Tattoo
Do Wear An SPF With Full UV Protection
Knowing that the sun can wreak some severe damage to your tattoo's color (whether black and gray or vibrant), it's almost obvious that you should wear sunscreen on your tattoos every day. Dr. Hale notes, however, that you *must* wear a sunscreen containing both UVA and UVB protection: "Across the board, a broad-spectrum sunscreen is recommended to protect all tattoo ink colors. We know that UVA rays penetrate deeper, and tattoo pigments are often deep in the skin. You want to make sure you wear a sunscreen that has both UVA and UVB protection." In addition to this, Dr. Alexiades recommends wearing a sunscreen that will pair well with your skin type. Most skin types can handle all types of sunscreen, but if you have particularly sensitive skin, you’ll want to stick with a mineral formula since it's less irritating. Additionally, she recommends opting for a sunscreen with SPF 30 or SPF 50 to protect your tattoos.
Don't Forget to Include Your Older Tattoos
You might think that the older a tattoo becomes, the less likely it is to accumulate damage from sun exposure the way a fresh tattoo might. But unfortunately, Aja-Noelle reveals that tattoos actually fade naturally with age. "Without sun exposure, tattoos will fade and alter with time, hence why clients come back into the studio for touch-ups, revivals, or cover-ups. Add sun exposure to an aging tattoo, and it will fade even more so."
Furthermore, older tattoos can actually wreak permanent damage to your skin. Dr. Alexiades recommends wearing sunscreen on older tattoos since "sunburn on old tattoos causes them to change, scarring your skin permanently," making tattoo aftercare and sun protection essential.
Don't Expose Fresh Tattoos to Sunlight
Suppose you are heading into the summer with a brand new tattoo — you'll likely want to show it off, but the pros recommend waiting just a tad bit before debuting your new piece at the beach. "When a tattoo is healing, it shouldn't be exposed to the sun, to be honest. Keeping it covered and sticking to the aftercare provided by the artist is best," says Aja-Noelle. "Tattoos, above all else, are open wounds that have been jabbed at repeatedly with a needle at high speeds. Leaving an open wound naked to the elements is never a good thing and can only instigate issues," like infection or burns. Once a tattoo has passed its "flakey" stage and the skin is no longer tender to the touch, you can show off your new artwork while wearing sunscreen.
Surprisingly, however, sunscreen can wreak havoc on a super fresh tattoo. Dr. Alexiades reveals to TZR, "Sunscreen only damages freshly tattooed skin because the act of tattooing penetrates the epidermis and exposes the skin's sensitive dermis layer" She recommends skipping sunscreen until four to six weeks after getting a tattoo. Instead, follow your artist's aftercare tips and favor wearing clothing with UVF protection.
Do Remember To Get Your Tattoos Checked By Your Dermatologist
Once your tattoo heals and you've found a SPF formula you adore, you have a pretty solid chance that your wearable art can stay vibrant for years to come. However, one downside to tattoos is that they can make it harder for you to notice any harmful changes in your skin's natural complexion that can point to diseases, like melanoma. Dr. Hale says, "There is a misconception that because you are covered in tattoos the ink is protecting you from skin cancer. Remember to have your dermatologists check your tattooed skin as well as the rest of your body when you book a screening, and always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher."
Shop 8 Sunscreens For Tattoos That The Experts Love
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