Dear Tattooist: What’s the best way to keep a tattoo fresh?

DeadRobot asked:

Dear Tattoisty

Sort of a remix on Urspo’s question:

I’ve heard from a few people that suns rays will deplete the colour of a tattoo. while one artist told me that chlorine from a pool will do it.

What’s the best way to keep a tattoo fresh?

Keep it in Tupperware. That way you can lock in the freshness.


I have been looking for scientific articles about this rather than just answering with conjecture, but all I have been able to find are a few articles here and there. All I have to present to you is what I have witnessed first-hand, been taught through my apprenticeship, learned about skin in biology classes, or corroborated from various sources on the Internet. Writing this post made me realize how much more I need to sit down with a dermatologist to learn more about the skin and how it heals.

First, some images so you can see where the tattoo ink is placed (or should be) in the skin.

Skin layers Skin layers

(For a brief overview of the layers of the skin, I recommend a reading of the Wikipedia article on Skin layers.)

See the area in the image that says “Battered Area”? The “Battered” part is important to remember. The skin is just that: Battered. Tenderized. Damaged.

The first 3 months of the tattoos life are the most important. It takes 2 to 4 weeks for the epidermis to shed and be replaced. The epidermal-dermal junction (aka the “basement membrane”) is reforming around 1 month, and is fully reformed around 2 to 3 months. The dermis is still repairing itself from the damage caused by the battering during the tattoo process and can take 6 months or more to fully heal.

(For a brief overview of the healing process of the skin, I recommend a casual reading of the Wikipedia article on wound healing.)

I said all that to say this: it takes a long time for your skin to heal after getting a tattoo!

Chlorine (and several other chemicals) could, in theory, affect the color of a tattoo that is still fresh and in the healing processes. But it should not fade a fully healed tattoo. As I said before, I have no hard science to back these statements up with. (Just Google “tattoo chlorine” and you will see most of the same “blah, blah, blah” information repeated over and over, but with no scientific backing.) For my clients, I recommend staying out of bodies of water for at least 4 weeks. Submersion in bodies of water can expose your new tattoo to elements that are harmful to the healing process: salt water (dries the skin and can lead to heavy scab formation), bacteria (risk on infection), various chemicals, etc.

By far the biggest risk to the freshness/brightness/life of any tattoo is UV radiation (direct sunlight, tanning lamps, etc.). Not exposing the tattoo to UV radiation will keep the tattoo “bright”. UV radiation penetrates the skin and this will cause the pigments in the dermis to break down over time.

Also, some tattoo inks are susceptible to UV radiation exposure—usually the magenta group of purples and violets, some yellows, and also many white pigments. These colors tend to change and mutate over time.

Since human bodies need some sunlight for some vitamin production, covering a fully healed tattoo with sunblock and following the duration-to-reapply instructions on said sunblock will help protect the tattoo.

There are other conditions that can affect the “freshness” of your tattoo as well:

Poor application of the tattoo by the tattooist. If the ink is inserted at the correct depth it will last much longer than a tattoo with ink that has been inserted too shallow (ink will “bleed out” through the still-healing basement membrane) or too deep (ink will be absorbed faster by the lymphatic system).

Poor quality ink affects the life of your tattoo. Not all tattoo inks are made with quality materials. In fact, tattoo ink is a highly unregulated market. “(B)ecause of other public health priorities and a previous lack of evidence of safety concerns, FDA traditionally has not exercised its regulatory authority over tattoo inks or the pigments used in them”. You should also know that “the FDA has not approved any tattoo pigments for injection into the skin. This applies to all tattoo pigments, including those used for ultraviolet (UV) and glow-in-the-dark tattoos. Many pigments used in tattoo inks are industrial-grade colors suitable for printers’ ink or automobile paint.”

(See the FDA product information regarding Tattoos & Permanent Makeup and “Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?”)

Failing in the aftercare department. Once you leave the studio, the tattoo is ultimately your responsibility. If you pick at any scabbing, use steam rooms, submerge your tattoo, and/or expose it to UV radiation during the healing process your tattoo could prematurely fade. Follow the instructions your tattooist gives you for the healing of your tattoo!

Also, after the tattoo has fully healed, dry skin will cause the tattoo to look dull. To brighten the colors up, use lotion daily.

I hope this wasn’t information overload for you. And hopefully I actually answered your question.

Here’s a few articles on the Internet I submit for your perusal:
– eMedicine article on Tattoo Lasers which also has a good medical histology of the tattoo process;
– BME article on “Tattoo Ink – Where Does It All Go?”

If you have questions about tattoos: tattoos in general, about getting a tattoo, about giving a tattoo, or anything else related to tattoos, just add a comment to my November 6, 2009 post, or send me the question via e-mail from my contact page. I will then dedicate an entire post to answering your question.

Until next time...

7 thoughts on “Dear Tattooist: What’s the best way to keep a tattoo fresh?

  1. This is all great info! Thank you!

    I think my last tattoo was expertly done and I want it to look as great as possible for a long time. The “lotion daily” will be a bit difficult since it’s on my back. Yeah I know… “get the husband to put it on” right? well he barely does the dishes let alone slather lotion on my hide…

    That’s another question entirely.

  2. My two tattoos (one big, one little) celebrate their 21st birthday this week, and I vividly remember the conversation that took place the morning I arrived at Cliff Raven’s studio in Twentynine Palms:

    Cliff: Are you one of those Aussies that spends every summer weekend on the beach?

    Me: Whenever I get the chance.

    Cliff: OK, then. No colours for you. Strong siunshine fades tattoo colours. We’re doing this entirely in black and shades of grey. Then you can go to the beach whenever you like.

    He did, too, and the result is still terriffic. When he was finished I asked him if he would have preferred to do it in colour.

    “No, it would have made you look like a Christmas tree.”

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