Statistics say that just over 30% of Americans have tattoos and nearly half of Americans under 40 have at least one. If you’re one of the many recently inked people out there, you need to know rules for sun safety that apply to the general population as well as those that apply to the recently tattooed. A tattoo changes how you can spend time in the sun, and how you care for your skin needs to be changed as well.

A brand new tattoo adds a new layer of complication to the mix. If you want both your skin and your tattoo to make it through the summer in one piece, check our our advice on what to do to stay sun safe when you’re freshly inked.

Always Avoid Direct Sunlight

Avoiding direct sunlight is pretty good advice for everyone. Considering that just one serious sunburn in your life can double your chances of getting skin cancer, you really do want to be careful. But with a new tattoo, you have a new complication to deal with.

Even an old tattoo is best protected from the sun. Sunlight damages skin and also the pigment of tattoos. The UVA rays and UVB rays will break down your tattoo over time and cause the colors to fade and the definition to blur. Molecules of pigment absorb the UV rays from the sun in much the same way molecules of sunscreen might. Except when it happens in the pigment of your tattoo, the radiation will break it down and damage your tattoo. The broken pigment molecules are absorbed into your bloodstream and your body naturally cleans them away. A crisp, bright tattoo will look dull and blurry after years of sun exposure. So it’s best to keep all your ink protected as much as you can.

The process by which the sun damages a tattoo is actually very similar to laser tattoo removal. It’s just a much slower process, but the end result is the same. You’re actively destroying those pigments and letting your body strip them away. So if you don’t want to very slowly remove your tattoo, you need to take precautions.

Consider how many old tattoos you’ve seen in your life. Really old military tattoos especially, on the arms of guys who have spent a lot of years out working in the sun. These tattoos probably started out black and have now faded to a blue or green color. This is in part because the black pigments used in older tattoos had a variety of base colors that fade or are absorbed differently over time. Thanks to time and sun damage, the pigments break down and typically the greens and blues last the longest. The end result is a tattoo that lacks a lot of definition and is less crisp and clean.

Older tattoos, ones that are healed, should always be covered with sunscreen. However, a new tattoo cannot be dealt with the same way.

Sun Exposure and a Fresh Tattoo

You never want to expose a new tattoo to the sun. Think of a new tattoo as a wound. You have had literally thousands of little needle stabs on your body to produce that tattoo. Your skin is raw and open all across the area. You’re going to be much more susceptible to sun damage as a result if you expose a new tattoo to bright sun. The tattooed skin will burn and potentially blister much faster than your flesh normally would. This can greatly alter the look of your tattoo as a result.

If a new tattoo got a sunburn on it, there’s a good chance that, when it healed, it would not be at all what you paid for. The blistering and burning can change the shape, color and saturation of your tattoo. It’s possible some of the pigment could be lost so you’d have spots with little or not color left in your skin. Basically, you’d ruin your tattoo. So do what you can to avoid this at all costs.

Wear loose clothing. This is your best defense when it comes to hiding freshly tattooed skin from sun rays. If you can cover your tattoo with a shirt or pants, then do so. If it’s somewhere else on your body like your hands or face, then you may just want to avoid the sun as much as possible until it’s fully healed.

What Will Sunscreen Do To My New Tattoo?

Obviously sunscreen is hugely important for sun protection. And there are many different kinds that can moisturize and offer all kinds of great benefits to your skin most of the time. DO NOT USE SUNSCREEN ON A NEW TATTOO. Putting sunscreen on new tattoos is never advised

It doesn’t matter what kind of sunscreen you have, you shouldn’t put it on a tattoo. The harsh chemicals in sunscreen are meant to be used only on your undamaged skin. Think of it this way – if you had a fresh burn or a big scratch that was bleeding, would you rub sunscreen in the wound? Probably not.

The chemicals in sunscreen are not just bad for putting in and around an open wound, they can harm the tattoo itself. It’s hard to say what effect sunscreen might have given how many different kinds there are. But there’s always a chance that rubbing it into a new tattoo can cause a reaction with the ink pigments which are still exposed since the tattoo is not healed. The sunscreen will be able to penetrate down to the ink layer in your skin. This could cause fading, chemical changes in the pigment, or even draw the ink back up and out of your skin. The end result could be an uneven and spotty tattoo.

You also run the risk of extending the healing time for your tattoo. In addition you may be filling the wound with bacteria that can cause an infection.

Infections in a new tattoo can be devastating. This can also strip away pigment and lead to misshapen and ugly tattoos when they finally do heal. There’s always a chance for tissue damage with a deep infection as well. You could end up with a serious medical issue that requires antibiotics and medical intervention. And it may be impossible to save your tattoo. When the wound heals it may look nothing like it was supposed to. Your only options at that point would be to live with an ugly tattoo or try to cover it up or remove it, both of which can cost you a good amount of money.

A tattoo needs to heal before anything can be put over top of it. There are some moisturizers your tattoo artist may recommend to speed healing but these are designed for that purpose. Chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens like zinc oxide may create a barrier on your skin. This can prevent oxygen from getting to the tattoo which is where the danger lies. With a barrier set up like that, your wound can actually fester. Anaerobic bacteria can proliferate in the damp, warm, oxygen-free environment and the result is a bad infection that can happen very fast.

Ask Your Tattoo Artist About Sunscreen

Obviously your tattoo needs time to heal enough before any sunscreen could be applied. But how long is that going to be? A good rule of thumb is to wait typically between four and six weeks before trying to apply anything like sunscreen to fresh tattoos. This will ensure you are fully healed and ready to go. The epidermis or outer layers of your skin need to be fully healed to protect the dermis below.

Your tattoo artist will be able to give you the best answer to this question. A well-trained and professional tattoo artist will know more about the exact type of ink they used and the nature of your tattoo. Different parts of the body heal differently and that needs to be taken into consideration. The type of ink they use, the type of needles they used for lining or shadework, all of this can potentially affect the outcome. So truly no one will know better than the artist who applied the ink.

In addition, you know yourself better than the artist knows you. How long does it usually take for you to fully heal from wounds? Do you have sensitive skin that takes a while to get through the healing process? These are all things that need to be factored into deciding what will be the best course of action.

All things being equal you want to err on the side of caution. Give yourself as much time as you can. Why? Because it’s a tattoo. Not only did it cost you a significant amount of money, this is obviously something you wanted to have for the rest of your life. So you need to put in the effort to take care of it right away.

Make sure you’re following directions on your sunscreen when you are finally able to use it. You’d be surprised how few people read sunscreen directions. Most sunscreens require that you apply it about 30 minutes before going out in the sun, for instance. This allows it to soak in so that it can actually work properly. Once soaked into your skin, chemical sunscreen is able to absorb the UVA and UVB rays as they penetrates your skin. The chemicals break down the UV rays and release them as heat that your skin gives off.

If you don’t give the sunscreen time to absorb in your skin, it won’t work nearly as well. Also, you’ll need to reply as directed. This is another thing people often overlook. If your sunscreen requires you to reapply after 80 minutes, don’t wait two hours. By then you will have lost the effectiveness of it and the sun’s rays will be damaging your skin and your tattoo.

What is the Best Sunscreen for a Healed Tattoo?

If you know your tattoo is fully healed, then any sunscreen you’d normally use should be fine. That said, some sunscreens are better than others. At a bare minimum you want to be using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. SPF 30 sunscreen prevents about 97% of the sun’s rays from penetrating your skin. SPF 50 will prevent 98%.  Always use a broad spectrum sunscreen when you wear sunscreen.

Anything below SPF 30 is considered too weak to properly protect you from the sun and therefore not helpful. Avoid any SPF 20 or 15 when you see them, they’re basically useless.

Some companies sell sunscreen specifically for tattoos. I had to Google that stuff and then I asked the artist who did my tattoos if those tattoo sunscreens are any good. She told me they’re basically a waste of money. It’s not that they don’t work, it’s that they don’t do much more than any normal sunscreen, but they can cost a lot more. They may have some more moisturizers in them which, when applied, make your tattoo look brighter, but that’s it. Your best bet is to use a quality sunscreen you already trust with a high SPF.

The Bottom Line

Getting a new tattoo is a lot of fun. You’ve paid for something that’s meaningful to you and you want to show it off. But you do need to make sure you’re being safe and responsible. No one wants to ruin their own tattoo or put their health in jeopardy. For that reason, make sure you’re taking things slow. Give your tattoo time to heal before you take it out in the sun. Never apply sunscreen to a new tattoo and never let it get sunburned with or without sunscreen on it. As always, stay safe and have fun.