New tattoos are crisp, vibrant, and exciting to look at. But if you head out into the sun too quickly after getting your new ink, you can end up ruining the beauty of the design. Even a hidden tattoo is susceptible to sun damage, so it’s essential to do your research on how best to care for your fresh tattoo. Too much sun exposure may cause fading, scarring, or color spreading, especially in the first few months after getting ink. Thankfully, protecting your tattoo is as easy as prevention and preservation. Ahead, a dermatologist and two tattoo artists share their best tips for protecting both new and old tattoos from the sun.
Meet the Expert
- Marnie Nussbaum, MD, FAAD is a board-certified, award-winning dermatologist specializing in cosmetic and medical dermatology at Marnie Nussbaum Dermatology & Aesthetics in New York City.
- Dan Hunter is a professional tattoo artist with over 10 years of experience in tattoo artistry, education, and instruction. He's also the owner, head writer, and chief editor of AuthorityTattoo.com.
- Max Brown is the cofounder of and resident tattoo artist at Brown Brothers Tattoo in Chicago. He specializes in symbolic animal tattoo artistry, including dragons, panthers, snakes, hawks, eagles, and wolves.
How the Sun Damages Your Tattoos
UV rays from the sun will fade your tattoos if exposed to a lot of direct sunlight. When you leave your ink out in the sun, those UV rays are absorbed and essentially break up the pigment in your design. Tattoos themselves are actually under two layers of skin, with the top acting as a filter between the pigment and the sun. However, the more sun exposure, the more colors will fade—regardless of how dark they started.
Are New Tattoos More Susceptible to Sun Damage?
New tattoos are more susceptible to damage. A fresh tattoo is an open wound with no protection on it. If the raw wound were exposed to the sun, it may burn much faster than healed skin, meaning your tattoo could fade, crack, blister, or peel.
"Your tattooed skin is going to be classified as an open wound until the scabbing process is complete," advises Hunter. "This can take up to two-to-three weeks, and sometimes a longer amount of time depending on the size and placement of the tattoo."
What Other Tattoos Are Most At Risk?
While all fresh tattoos should be kept out of the sun, it's especially important for those with color designs with light tints, according to Brown.
"As they settle in and become exposed to the elements, the lighter colors fade quicker than black, dark green, dark blue, dark purple," says Brown. "Darker colors have proven their lightfastness over time. Care during healing is key, and sunblock is necessary to help your tattoos keep their gorgeous color."
How to Protect Your Tattoo From the Sun
Wear sunscreen: Sunblock is the number one form of protection for your tattoo. Applying sunblock will help prevent skin cancer, wrinkles, blotchy complexions, and other skin-caused damage. Any sunblock is better than no sunblock when it comes to preparing your ink for the sun, but most artists will suggest using a fragrance-free sunscreen with 30-50 SPF (try to stick to natural ingredients if possible, too). Whatever sunscreen you would normally use without a tattoo is fine — whether chemical or physical. According to Nussbaum, SPF is a critical part of protecting your tattoo against UV rays. "The most important thing when choosing a sunscreen is to make sure it is broad-spectrum, meaning it protects against both UVA, which penetrates deeper than UVB rays, causing free radical damage, and UVB rays, which damage the cell's DNA and burn the skin," she says. "Sunburns and chronic UV exposure can damage the appearance of tattoos over time and lead to fading, wrinkles, and dullness/dryness." Nussbaum also says it's safe to put sunscreen on a healed tattoo, but fresh ink will need to heal first (instead, cover it with a bandage or loose clothing). Be sure to reapply your sunblock every two hours to ensure a continuous and solid layer of protection.
Cover up: If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of reapplying sunscreen, the second-best option for sun protection is to ultimately keep your new ink out of the sun. At the very least, make sure not to expose a new tattoo to direct sunlight for the first month of having it—especially the first two weeks. Not only will sun exposure cause the tattoo’s colors to fade, as previously mentioned, but it may also burn your skin and scar it from sun damage. Keeping your tattoo out of the sun doesn’t mean you have to stay inside all day, though. Maintain your ink's vibrant colors and linework by always wearing at least one layer while in the sun. It can be light—as long as it covers the tattoo design completely.
Get your tattoo during the winter: One of the easiest ways to prevent sun damage to your tattoo is to consider what time of year you’ll be getting inked. Getting your tattoo in the winter will reduce your bare exposure to sun, as chilly weather means more clothing to cover up with. However, the winter season also means dry skin. If your skin tends to feel dry, flakey, and itchy during the colder weather months, load up on moisturizing lotions. To protect your new tattoo, we love the original, unscented Aquaphor formula. Slather on day or night for intense moisture and protection. (Or, try one of these tattoo artist-approved lotions).
If you get the tattoo too close to a vacation or beach day, you’ll spend the whole time out of the water with your ink-covered. While saltwater may seem like it’ll help (chlorine water—not so much), any kind of soaking during your initial healing period may cause infection and damage the design work you paid for. If you really want to get a tattoo during the summer, at least wait until you know you won’t be going on vacation for a month or so. And if you want to get tattooed while on vacation? Just wait until the latter half of your trip, so you can still have fun in the sun and worry about aftercare once you’re home.
Moisturize often, inside and out: Nussbaum also suggests moisturizing often and drinking water every day. "Keep your skin well hydrated so that it can protect itself from external damage and maintain your skin’s natural moisture barrier," says Nussbaum. She also notes that hydration doesn't mean more showers, though. "Skip the long, hot showers, which can strip the skin of its natural oils and lead to dry skin, and instead opt for a shorter shower (five minutes maximum) with lukewarm water."
Check-in with your skin: Another essential thing to do if you expose your tattoo to the sun is to check your skin for any visible signs of damage. Aside from spot-checking regularly for any mole additions or changes (this should be a weekly thing, regardless of the season!), make sure to give your tattoo a good once over to ensure that the design hasn’t majorly warped. Just because you're careful in the sun doesn't mean you've successfully kept your ink covered. And while peeling is common with a new tattoo, be sure to call your doctor if anything looks off.
Shop the Best Sunscreens For Tattoos
Freshly inked skin is usually sensitive. This solid stick contains 100 percent zinc oxide, an active mineral ingredient for adequate protection. It's hypoallergenic and free of phthalates, dyes, and parabens.
This lightweight sunscreen has a sheer finish, not leaving white residue on the skin. Its formula (made with grape, raspberry, and carrot seed oils) is water-resistant and is coral reef friendly.
This lotion with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide helps form a barrier on the surface of your skin to reflect the sun’s rays. It protects against both UVA and UVB rays with a hydrating, chemical-free, and oil-free formula.
The Final Takeaway
All in all, the tattoo aftercare process is straightforward when it comes to sun exposure: the better you care for your skin, the better your new or old tattoo will look. With these tips and the proper course of care from your dermatologist and/or tattoo artist, you'll keep your tattoo looking fresh and vibrant.
Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you get a tattoo. Updated October 2, 2020.
Latha MS, Martis J, Shobha V, et al. Sunscreening agents: a review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013;6(1):16-26.