You’ve spent months thinking about the new ink you’d like on the perfect spot on your body. Played around with designs, done drafts, envisioning what it will look like in the end. You’ve found the right artist, checked out their stuff, and determined that they are the ideal choice for a permanent exhibition on your body. Then you get the tattoo done, and now it’s time to show it off.
But what about the sun?
The sun will damage tattoos, especially new ones. So is it safe to tan with a tattoo? What about tattoo tanning lotion, tanning oil, and the like? Will these cause your costly artwork to diminish and fade?
We do not want that to happen, so let’s be careful and do things correctly!
In this article, I’ll go over the details on how to care for tattoos in the sun, and how to keep your artwork in great shape!
Body Art and Sun Exposure
As any tattoo aficionado knows, a tattoo-covered body is in many ways like a museum. You’re the curator of the art in your body-museum, and you’ve gone through considerable time and expense to get everything looking just right!
When fine art is hung in a museum, the museum will frequently use UV-protected glass to keep the art from getting damaged. Sunlight is the enemy of pretty much all ink or pigment. Over time, sunlight will absolutely destroy ink, whether on photo paper, canvas, regular paper, skin, or any other surface.
Museums fight against this by using “museum glass“, which is a type of glass that is UV protected, and more resistant to shattering.
For body art, the principal is the same. The more light that your body art is exposed to, the more quickly it will fade and disappear. You toiled hard and long to get a beautiful tattoo done, so you really want to keep it looking good for as long as you can.
Of course, over time, all tattoos will fade. That’s how they work. But you want them to look as good as possible, for as long as possible.
So what’s the solution? You obviously can’t wrap yourself up in some sort of special glass! Well, not very easily, anyway.
Instead, you’ll have to use some other techniques for keeping your tattoos and body art looking beautiful for years to come.
Advice from Your Artist
Be sure to talk with your tattoo artist about solar exposure and how it will impact the tattoo you’re choosing to get. Your artist will likely have a great deal of experience in this area and will give you some solid information. Here’s some great general information on the process of healing after getting a tattoo done.
That said, much of this is pretty basic, so we can go over the general details here.
Tattoo Colors and Solar Exposure
Keep in mind that black tattoo ink will usually fade the slowest, and delicate color ink will generally fade the fastest.
How Long After Getting a Tattoo Can You Tan in the Sun?
You’ll need to wait at least 3-4 weeks before exposing your new tattoo to any sunlight at all. Before that time, you risk damaging your skin, and your tattoo, if you get too much sun prematurely.
After the 3-4 week time frame, you’ll need to be careful and use significant amounts of sunblock on your tattoos until they have fully healed. This usually takes about 6 weeks to complete.
Covering up your newly tattoos, and completely protecting them from the sun, is critical. You need to let the tattoo heal completely, and let the body process the damage that the tattoo application caused.
Fresh Tattoos and UV Exposure
Tattoos recently acquired must be kept out of any sunlight until they are fully healed. You want the tattoo to fully scab over and completely heal before you give it any exposure to UV light.
Tattoos that have been recently applied are essentially open wounds and should be treated similarly. Typically the tattoo will be essentially an open wound for about two weeks until it completely scabs over. This can vary a bit depending on where the tattoo is located, the type of tattoo, and your body type.
Depending on the location and type of tattoo, you will want to cover it up in different ways. Some use plastic wrap, others use bandages, and some use something like a Tattoo Sleeve for the protection they offer.
Regardless, generally about two weeks after you acquire a new tattoo, it will have scabbed over fully.
After that point, the skin around the tattoo will still be extremely tender and sensitive. However, you’ve crossed the most difficult point, and now it’s time to wait for the tattoo to peel.
Can You Put Sunscreen on a New Tattoo?
You shouldn’t be putting sunscreens of any sort on a new tattoo. Just keep the new tattoo completely covered until it has fully scabbed over. Don’t try applying any sunscreens to the ink, as the skin in the tattoo area is so sensitive.
If you apply sunscreen prematurely, you can cause irritation, and potentially slow the process of letting the tattooed skin heal fully.
New Tattoo Sun Protection
Once you have passed completely through the scabbing process, you getting around the bend when it comes to tattoo healing. Your skin around the tattoo will be super sensitive, and you should continue to keep it covered up while out in the sun for a couple of additional weeks.
Gradually, the tattoo will peel, and this will get you through the brunt of the healing process. Usually, this happens around 3-4 weeks.
Tattoo Protection on Cloudy Days
Yep, you still need to protect your tattoos from exposure, even when it’s cloudy out!
Just because it may feel dreary and dark, with a sky full of clouds, that doesn’t mean your tattoo (and the rest of your body) aren’t getting exposed to tons of UV radiation.
Depending on the quantity and type of cloud cover, you may get up to 80% of the UV rays through the clouds!
Once your tattoo is fully healed and ready for display, you can display it and expose it to some sunlight. But you really need to be careful and use a good tattoo sunscreen. The best choices are suntan lotion for tattoos. Particularly ones that are easy to apply.
Depending on the size and scale of your tattoo collection, you will need more or less sunscreen. Also, the more tattoos you have, the longer it will take to apply the sunscreen to those areas in particular.
Water Resistance and Sunscreens
A quick note on water resistance and sunscreens. Many sunscreens will advertise themselves as water resistant. This may be true in lab conditions, but for the most part, it’s not a reality in a way that’s useful for most people.
For example, water resistance tests don’t include using a towel to dry off after a dip in the water. But everybody actually does use a towel to dry off after they get out of the water.
For this reason, the bottom line is that you shouldn’t treat any sunscreen as water resistant. Plan to reapply the sunscreen after you get out of the water and get re-oriented at the pool or on the beach.
There are several high-quality suntan lotions that are a great choice for those with tattoos. Let’s look at a few really good options for tattoo protection, and consider the pros and cons.
- Australian Gold.
- Tatoo Stick SPF50.
Aussie Gold makes some outstanding products (I love their dark tanning lotion), and this tattoo stick is a really good choice for those who don’t have a bunch of large format tattoos to protect. The stick is about the size of a very small deodorant stick, and it applies really easily.
You can essentially “draw on” the sunscreen over your tattoos, which makes it really easy to control. You’re not smearing and rubbing the sunscreen in like you would with a typical lotion or oil-style sunscreen, so you can get the borders between your skin and your tattoo to be pretty nice.
It is water-resistant, but as mentioned above, reapply the sunscreen when you’re done in the water.
It’s quite expensive, though, given the size, so just beware.
INK makes a great line of tattoo-protecting sunscreens. This spray works really well for those who have tattoos over a fairly large portion of the body.
This sunscreen is broad-spectrum and provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays. The INK sunscreen works pretty well, but just keep in mind that it’s a lot harder to control spray sunscreen compared to tattoo stick-style sunscreen.
Most likely, you’ll want to plan to use this as the sunscreen for your whole body, as opposed to just a tattoo sunscreen.
While this sunscreen is advertised as water-resistant, you’ll need to reapply after getting out of the water.
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CannaSmack’s Ink Guard is yet another high-quality stick tattoo sunscreen. Like the Aussie Gold tattoo stick, this one is easily-applied by drawing the stick along your tattooed skin. For this reason, it’s pretty easy to control the transition point between your tattoos and the rest of your skin.
This sunscreen offers both UVA and UVB protection, so it’s an ideal choice for tattoo protection! It also includes lots of moisturizers, which will help keep your tattoo looking great.
Tattooed Skin and Tattoo-Free Skin
You should always protect your tattooed skin with sunscreen. If you don’t, it will fade pretty quickly. But what about the rest of your skin? Well, of course, you need to protect that too, but you can treat that differently. As I have mentioned in my article on the benefits of tanning and sun exposure, there are numerous benefits to sun exposure, but you need to be smart.
What Do You Do About the Spots Where Your Skin Meets Your Inked Skin?
If you love to get a luminescent, sun-kissed tan, you’ll have to figure out how to blend the skin around your tattoos in with the rest of your skin. You have a couple of options for doing that.
The first option is to simply apply the sunscreen over the tattoo, and let there be a skin color difference where your tattoo is located. Depending on the design, color configuration, and scale of your tattoo, this can be the best choice. If you don’t have natural bits of skin tone peeking through your tattoo, it won’t matter.
But if you do have bits of un-inked skin as part of your tattoo, you may want to apply a sunless tanner or bronzer over the tattoo area to even out the skin tone between the tattooed area and the rest of your skin.
Your best bet is to simply use a high-quality sunless tanner over your tattoo area. These products will not harm the tattoo but will provide color to the tattoo area. You can choose to use these over your whole body, or just the areas where the tattoos are located.
As mentioned above, you should only contemplate using these after your tattoos have scabbed over and peeled.
Sunburns and Tattoos
The area where you have a tattoo, especially a newly-inked tattoo, will be more sensitive in general and will be more prone to sunburns. Sunburns will be extra harmful (they’re already really harmful!).
Sunburns will damage the ink of a tattoo, cause the skin to blister and peel, and may ultimately increase the speed of tattoo fading.
Sunless Tanners, Bronzers, and Spray Tans with Tattoos
All sunless tanners, spray tans, bronzers, etc. are tattoo safe. This is, of course, assuming that your tattoo has fully healed. These products can go a long way toward blending the skin around the tattoo with the skin inside the tattoo, giving you an even, beautiful look.
Once you’re healed, you can use virtually any sunless tanner or bronzer on your skin.
Let’s look at a quick graph of the skin to see why.
Spray Tans and Sunless tanners work on the stratum corneum, which is the outermost layer of the epidermis. The epidermis is the outer layer of skin.
Tattoos, on the other hand, are located much, much deeper, in the dermis. They don’t really interact with each other, so you’re safe applying sunless tanners and spray tans with a tattoo on.
The best sunless tanning product, in my eyes, is the Loving Tan Sunless Tanner line. Yes, this stuff isn’t cheap. But it works really well and looks extremely natural.
Loving Tan makes fantastic bronzers and self-tanners. Their medium sunless tanner looks outstanding, is easy to apply, and is completely tattoo-safe. Loving Tan is a great choice for self-tanning in general, but also for blending tattoo’ed skin with clear skin. Loving Tan has three different darkness levels, so you can choose the level of tan you’re trying to match.
Spray Tanning with Tattoos
Without a doubt, the best solution for tanning with tattoos is artificial tanning. This can be either a spray tan or by using a sunless tanner.
You could consider picking up a spray tanning machine and applying your own spray tans. Keep in mind that you can’t apply it yourself. You’ll need a partner to spray you (and you can spray them!).
Spray tanning solution is perfectly safe for tattoos, and works similarly to Sunless Tanning products. Spray tans will provide even coverage over the entire skin, and there’s no need to blend the spray tan solution from the tattooed areas to the ink-free spots.
Just keep in mind that spray tans provide no sun protection at all. Even though you will look tan, you are not actually tan at all!
It’s important that you wear sunscreen or otherwise cover up with your spray tan. This will help protect your body and your tattoo!
Will Spray Tans and Self Tanners Darken a Tattoo?
A spray tan or self-tanning bronzer may darken the overall color of a tattoo while the pigment is active. But it will not completely change the color of your tattoo. This is because the tattoo is located in a much deeper layer of the skin than the self-tanners and spray tanners.
Think of it like putting tinted glass over your artwork. Tinted glass will change the color of your work a bit, but if you take the glass off, the work will be the color it was before you started.
Tattoo Tanning Lotion
Lots of us like to use tanning oils and tanning accelerator lotions to really amp up the tan to that gorgeous sun-drenched bronze. These products speed the tanning process and result in a richer, bolder tan. But how do they interact with tattoos?
Many tanning lotions and oils advertise themselves as tattoo-safe. They imply that the lotion won’t damage tattoos. For example, this Artemis-Apollo Tanning Lotion is advertised as 100% Tatoo-Safe.
Sure, you can use it. And many people do. But it will probably make your tattoos fade faster than they otherwise would.
You need to be very wary of using any tanning lotion on tattooed skin unless you first apply a high-quality sunscreen. You should be covering up and protecting your tattoos, not amplifying the sun’s power toward them.
The areas where you have tattoos are fragile works of art. Using a tanning lotion on those areas without sunscreen is like taking the frame off your Matisse and letting the full brunt of the sun’s light blast it.
Do Tanning Beds Fade Tattoos?
Yes, they do. Tanning Beds use ultraviolet light, primarily UVA light, to produce a tan. This light can be up to six times as powerful as the light of the sun, and is not to be treated lightly.
I am pretty strongly against tanning using tanning beds, and feel that outdoor tanning is a much better choice. If you really want to tan off-season, though, you should consider spray tanning as an alternative to tanning beds. Spray Tans can work quite well, look great, and won’t harm tattoos.
Should you decide you still want to tan in a tanning bed with your tattoo, you should apply sunblock to your tattoo. Be sure that it is broad-spectrum sunblock like the Ink sunscreen spray mentioned above.
Conclusion: Tattoo Care in the Sun and in Sunbeds
The bottom line is that you need to take care of your tattoos in order to keep them looking as good as possible, for as long as possible.
To do this, you should keep your tattoo protected until it’s fully healed. At least 3-4 weeks before any sun exposure! And after that, always protect your tattoos with sunscreen.
Consider spray tans and sunless tanners to keep your skin tone even between your tattooed skin and the rest of your body.
And finally, avoid tanning booths and tanning accelerators, especially if you aren’t wearing sunscreen.