Should I Shave My Arms to Show Off My Tattoo Sleeves?

tattoo sleeves closeup

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There's no doubt about it: tattoo sleeves are statement-making. And whether you decide to go with a quarter-, half-, or full-sleeve; patchwork (i.e. curated, separate designs) or one big image; vibrant colors, or a monochrome palette, will depend on your taste—and budget. But stylistic and monetary factors aside, there's one more thing that you should consider when envisioning what your finished body art will look like: arm hair.

Naturally, having "no hair on arms helps make tattoos more visible," says Shari Sperling, DO, a board-certified dermatologist at Sperling Dermatology. Still, that's not to say that everyone with arm hair who is interested in getting ink done should have it removed. To determine whether shaving arms to show off tattoo sleeves might be for you, we turned to Sperling, Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified Miami dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology, and tattoo artists Gianna Caranfa and Shaughnessy Otsuji for their industry insight and expertise.

Keep reading for expert advice on whether you should plan to shave your arms if you get a tattoo sleeve.

Meet the Expert

Should You Remove Body Hair to Show Off Tattoos?

Floral arm and leg tattoos

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First thing's first: No matter what you decide to do post-tatt, removing body hair before you get inked is a good idea. Although you can do this yourself before your appointment, according to Caranfa, a NY-based tattoo artist and owner of Bee Inked private tattoo parlor, most artists will shave the area for their clients before they begin tattooing. Not only is it easier for tattoo artists to work without hair in the way, says Sperling, but removing hair before tattooing will also remove the bacteria it harbors, explains Otsuji, is a restorative tattoo artist and owner of Studio Sashiko. This will also help to prevent any razor burn or irritation, she adds.

"Once the tattoo is fully healed, it is up to the client to shave the tattoo or not, whether it is just for them to appreciate or to shave and show it off," Caranfa says. The results will be more or less dramatic depending on certain factors, like how much body hair you have and how thick or coarse it is. It's a completely personal decision and you should not feel pressured to remove hair anywhere on your body.

Besides shaving, there are other ways to make your tattoo pop. Keeping the area moisturized by lotioning daily will help ensure your tattoo looks vibrant and beautiful.

Safe Ways to Remove Body Hair That Covers Tattoos

  • Shaving: The quickest and most affordable way to remove hair, shaving can easily be done from the comfort of your own home. Just be sure to shave gently​ in the direction of hair growth to avoid ingrown hairs and irritation. And since the results are not long-lasting, you'll need to shave several times a week to avoid any stubble, in case that's a concern of yours.
  • Waxing: Longer-lasting than shaving—but more painful too—waxing will give you smooth, hair-free arms for three to six weeks. However, be aware that body hair must be at least a quarter-inch long to wax, the equivalent of three to four weeks of growth.
  • Depilatory cream: As long as you follow product instructions, hair removal cream is a safe and effective way to remove hair if you have tattoos. "This is because a tattoo resides below the epidermis, while hair removal creams dissolve hair on the epidermis," explains Chimento. "You can perform a patch test with hair removal cream by squeezing a very small amount on a cotton swab and then applying the cream to the edge of your tattoo. Leave the cream on your skin for the amount of time directed on the product, and then examine your skin for burnt skin or blisters," she instructs. 
  • Electrolysis: The most effective yet costly option for permanent hair removal results, electrolysis can be performed on all skin and hair types. Using shortwave radio frequencies destroys the hair root so that hair does not grow back. And while discomfort is said to be minimal, individual pain tolerance will vary.

How to Protect Your Tattoo Sleeve

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If you do decide to remove hair from a tattooed area, be sure not to do it too soon. "You should wait at least two weeks or until the tattoo is healed to remove hair. To be sure when your tattoo is fully healed, you can ask your tattoo artist," says Chimento. Caranfa emphasizes the importance of following this precaution: "While healing a tattoo you should never shave over the fresh tattoo. This will prematurely take the ink out of your skin," explains Caranfa. "If any knicks or ingrown hairs occur from shaving, these issues can cause excess irritation and scabbing, which can lead to premature fallout or fading of the ink," adds Otsuji.

Only those hair removal methods that are safe for tattoos (see above list) should be used on tattooed skin. That's because while some treatments like lasers work well on non-tattooed skin, "[they] can cause severe burning, blisters, and skin damage on tattooed skin," explains Chimento. "Lasers can also cause lines to blur and reduce the color of tattoos, and cause painful and unwanted side effects. To put it simply, it is unsafe to get laser hair removal over a tattoo," she says.

Also keep in mind that without body hair, tattoos are left exposed, making them especially vulnerable to the sun. Caranfa and Otsuji emphasize the importance of shielding tattoos from the sun since prolonged exposure can cause tattoos to raise and fade. It's advisable to wear long-sleeved, lightweight cotton shirts in the summer and a mild SPF daily, even when you're driving in the car. Not only will you protect your body art, but you'll also help to prevent skin cancer, too.

Properly taking care of your tattoo also means keeping it clean to avoid infection. Caranfa instructs, "Clean the tattoo with Gold Dial Antibacterial Soap ($2) bar or liquid form, only using your hands, never a washcloth or loofa. Pat the tattoo dry with a clean paper towel, let it dry for two minutes, then apply nonscented lotion." Sperling recommends Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($10).

The Final Takeaway 

While experts admit that arm hair can affect your tattoo's appearance, whether or not you decide to go hairless is entirely up to you. Still, the most important way to keep any tattoo looking its best—and this has nothing to do with the to shave, or not to shave, debate—is by following the right tattoo aftercare. After all, a tattoo is a lifelong commitment (despite there being tattoo removal creams out there) so show it off with pride.

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