Everyone who gets a tattoo goes into the shop knowing that how it looks at the end of the session is the most sharp and vibrant it's ever going to look. Once healed, work done by a talented, professional tattoo artist will still look fresh and vivid, but from that point on, other factors play a significant role in how that ink will look when it's not so new anymore.
In addition to following your artist's aftercare instructions, there are things you can do — or, more accurately, avoid doing — to ensure your tattoo will age beautifully. "Right after getting a tattoo, until fully healed, I would avoid anything that would cause friction on the surface, like tight clothing," says dermatologist Naissan O. Wesley, who recommends also steering clear of swimming and smoking during the healing process. The long game for tattoos is a little more of a mystery, however. "We're still trying to understand what other factors affect tattoo aging long-term, and more studies will hopefully be done in the future."
That said, much of tattoo maintenance falls in line with common-sense skin care. "Taking care of your tattoo means taking care of the skin that it lives in," dermatologist Edgar Fincher tells Allure. We asked these experts exactly what that means, so you can give your tattoo its brightest possible future.
There are numerous reasons a tattoo may fade or become misshapen over the course of a lifetime. Among them, Wesley says, are the location of the tattoo, the color and type of pigment, sun exposure, and smoking. Additionally, both she and Fincher call out the likelihood of an amateur tattoo changing faster or more dramatically over time.
"There is a definite difference between professional tattoos and amateur or self-injected tattoos," Fincher says. "The professional ones are generally placed deeper, and the ink is more concentrated, so the overall result is that it stays longer and looks better longer." Amateur tattoos tend to fade or become blurry over time, he says — but that doesn't mean that can't happen with a tattoo done by a pro.
"Despite the quality of the initial tattoo, the appearance can sometimes change with the ink becoming lighter or blurry over time," Fincher says. "I think that in most cases the changing of a professional tattoo has more to do with the health of the skin than the ink itself."
Bodily changes that have seemingly nothing to do with your skin — weight fluctuation, pregnancy, and large-scale body building, for example — can also affect your tattoos. "These rapid volume and mass fluctuations cause the skin and underlying ink to stretch and then relax when the mass shifts back," Fincher says. "This leads to distortion or disruption of the tattoo."
If you're very concerned about how your next tattoo may age, you may want to rule out certain areas of your body. Some body parts are more susceptible to age-related changes, such as loss of elasticity, stretching, or sagging, according to Fincher; thus, so are the tattoos on those body parts. "Shoulders and ankles have tight skin, and the skin does not sag and become as loose over time, unlike the upper arm or abdomen," he says.
The thickness of certain areas of skin can play a part in a tattoo's longevity, as well. "Tattoos on the palms and soles don't tend to last as long because the skin is thicker compared to other parts of the body and the tattoos tend not to go as deep," says Wesley, who explains that that the stratum corneum — the outermost layer of skin — is much more dense in these areas, so when it renews or sloughs over time, the tattoo often fades.
The most crucial determination of which body parts make for the least-mutable tattoo canvases, however, may be how much sun exposure they get. "Areas of the body that have had more cumulative UV light damage over someone's lifetime will also often have less dense collagen and more mottled pigmentation, resulting in poorer skin quality in general from photoaging," Wesley says. The result: faded, discolored, and less-taut tattoos.
Needless to say, the first line of defense against unwanted changes to your tattoos is sunscreen. "Sunscreen helps prevent the breakdown of collagen over time and thus helps maintain elasticity," he says, adding that it can help prevent freckling and hyperpigmentation, too.
Wesley is on the same page. "Sun protection is a vital component in keeping tattoos looking their best," she says. "Sun damage leads to poorer skin quality — less dense collagen, wrinkling, mottled pigmentation — and also results in tattoo color fading more quickly." A scientific advisor for Arbonne, she recommends the brand's AgeWell Moisture Restoring Cream With Broad Spectrum SPF 15 Sunscreen, which features hydrating hyaluronic acid, barrier-boosing ceramides, and omega fatty acids. For a similarly nourishing sunscreen with a higher SPF, we like La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk SPF 100.
Almost important: moisturizing. "Regular use of skin moisturizers helps hydrate the skin and thus aids in decreasing wrinkles that detract from the overall appearance of the skin — including a tattoo that may be there," Fincher says.
Exfoliation can be a confusing concept when it comes to tattoos. It helps brighten skin, which sounds great for tattoos, but it can also help fade discoloration. Does that mean it can fade the color in tattoos? Turns out it's all about timing.
Wesley says that studies have shown that tattoo ink is initially located in the epidermis and superficial dermis — the outermost layers of skin. But by month three, after complete healing, most of the ink is located more deeply, just below the epidermal-dermal junction in the upper dermis.
"For the first few months, I would probably avoid anything that would potentially exfoliate or renew the upper layers such as mechanical exfoliation or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)," she tells Allure. After three months, however, she gives the green light to use products with AHAs, as long as they don't irritate your skin.
Fincher is also in favor of using AHAs on tattoos, as well as retinol. "These products help remove damaged portions of the skin, can build new collagen, and also remove unwanted pigmentation from the skin," he explains. "Daily use of these products can keep the skin looking bright, sharp, and reflective — including the tattoo underneath."
If you find yourself unhappy with how your tattoo has evolved, it's not too late to freshen it up — but it will probably require another appointment with a tattoo artist.
"If it's a sun-worn, older tattoo, it will most likely need a full revamp — not just on one color that may have faded," says Fort Lauderdale-based tattoo artist Erin Odea. "That’s because the lines are also likely faded and need to be done as well to get that 'new,' polished look as a whole." Another way to improve the appearance of an older, blurry tattoo is to add a background and new lines to make it look crisper.
New York City-based tattoo artist Becca Genné-Bacon agrees that a full revamp is often needed for a consistent look, but she's also in favor of simply letting tattoos evolve as they may. "I usually recommend that people let their tattoos age with them," she tells Allure. "Some fading of a lived-in tattoo is all part of the process of them, and I love seeing a 20-, 30-, 40-year-old tattoo that’s been through some life."
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