Sun Damaged Tattoos: Treatment & Prevention

So you just got a new tattoo and you want to show it off on a sunny summer day…

Or maybe you’re a tattoo veteran covered from head to toe who feels like doing some sunbathing…

Well, you might be wondering, what effect will the hot sun have on my ink?!

The unfortunate answer is that your body art may be at risk of sun damage.

But what is sun damage? Can it be avoided? And what happens if your tattoos are damaged by the sun?

In this article, we will learn about the sad reality of sun-damaged tattoos, as well as their causes, treatment, and prevention.

Keep Reading to learn more!

What Is Sun Damage? 

Sun damage is any kind of skin damage caused by direct exposure to the sun.

Anyone who’s been badly sun burnt will be well aware of the potential seriousness of direct exposure to the sun.

This exposure can cause rashes, dry skin, blisters, peeling areas, and worse.

Because of the serious issues caused by over-exposure, it is understandable that many tattooed individuals are worried about their tattooed areas when out and about in the sun.

But, just because the sun can damage your skin, does that mean your tattoos are at risk, too?

Sun damage is any kind of skin damage caused by direct exposure to the sun.

How Does Sun Damage Affect Tattoos?

When your tattoos are exposed to the sun, UV rays are absorbed into your skin and the ink in your tattoo. 

These UV rays destroy the pigments in your tattoo.

That’s what happens on a microscopic level.

But, what does that actually do to your tattoo?

Impact Of Light Sun Damage On Tattoos

The truth is that most lightly burned individuals will not notice any serious changes to the appearance of their tattoos.

In other words, if you went for a walk on a sunny day without sunscreen and noticed a little redness afterwards, your tattoos are probably safe.

That said, repeated exposure over many months or years will cause tattoos to fade and discolour over time.

This is because the tattooed skin loses a layer or layers of pigment every time it is burnt.

For some, fading tattoos are just part of the experience of owning tattoos. 

However, if you wish to maintain the vibrant colour and definition of your tattoos, then you should make sure to avoid overexposure and take the proper precautions (which we will cover later in this article).

Impact Of Severe Sun Damage On Tattoos

Tattooed individuals who have sustained serious sun damage will likely see either minor or significant changes to their tattoo’s appearance — depending on the severity of their exposure.

Those with less severe sun damage may see some faded colour and less definition as their skin heals.

Those with more severe burns may see a complete loss of colour and zero definition after their skin has healed.

These individuals may also experience scarring over the burned tattoo.

How The Sun Affects Different Types Of Tattoos

So, obviously, the impacts of sun damage on tattoos will vary depending on the severity of the burn, but did you know that the type of tattoo you have can also be a factor?

That’s right.

Individuals with lighter tattoos may experience more fading than those with dark tattoos.

For example, someone with a plain black tattoo may actually see their dark pigment maintained better than someone with light-coloured ink, following a burn.

A lightly sunburnt tattoo.

How To Prevent Sun Damage On Tattoos

Protecting New Tattoos

New tattoos are very prone to sun damage. 

The sun’s UV rays can cause fading and discoloration, and tattoo ink is particularly susceptible to damage. 

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to protect your new tattoo from sun damage. 

First, try to avoid sun exposure for the first few weeks after getting your tattoo — this gives the ink time to heal and settle into the skin.

It may sound over the top, but getting your tattoo during the winter months is actually widely recommended.

This way, there is both less sun (depending on where you live) and you will be less tempted to head out in a tank top (again, this is location dependent).

Once your tattoo is healed, make sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. 

Make sure NOT to put sunscreen on your tattoo until it is fully healed!

Apply sunscreen generously and reapply often, especially if you’re sweating or swimming. 

You should also wear protective clothing when possible, such as long sleeves and pants.

It is important to wear very loose fitting clothing over top of your new tattoo.

Preventing Sun Damage On Healed Tattoos

Because tattoos last for your entire lifetime, it is inevitable that they will sustain some form of sun damage over time.

That said, there are still some precautions one can take to protect their ink over the course of their life.

Most of these methods require regularly considering your tattoos and the weather outside on a consistent basis.

For example: If it is sunny out, think about covering your tattoos strategically using clothing.

Or, if you would prefer to show your tattoos off, make sure to generously apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Make sure to generously apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to your healed tattoos.

Short-Term Treatment For Sun Damaged Tattoos

If you have experienced some form of sun damage on your tattoo (or anywhere on your skin for that matter) it is vital to act fast in the short term.

The steps you take after exposure will depend on how severe your sunburn is.

Short-Term Treatment For Lightly Burned Tattoos

If you have a lightly burned tattoo then there is likely no need to panic. Just be sure to take the appropriate steps.

  1. First, seek shade or go inside to ensure your tattoo is not further damaged.
  2. Remove any clothing or jewelry that is touching the affected area.
  3. Find cold water and apply it to your affected skin and tattoo using a damp cloth.
  4. Once your burned area begins to calm down, make sure to be careful and not avoid popping any blisters that form.
  5. Use lotion to soothe the skin. Apply it gently to the affected area.
  6. Wrap gauze over the tattoo.

Lightly burned tattoos will typically heal within a few weeks.

Short-Term Treatment For Severely Burned Tattoos

If you have a severe sunburn, on ANY area of your body — tattooed or not — it is crucial that you act fast.

Start by finding shade to ensue that no more damage is caused by the sun’s rays.

Ideally, this shady area will also have a cool temperature.

Once you are in a cool, shady area, seek appropriate medical attention as soon as possible.

Dealing With Sun Damaged Tattoos In The Long Term

Once your sun damaged tattoo has healed, there are a few options for either repairing or, in the most serious of cases, removing the tattoo.

Repairing A Burned Tattoo 

In some cases, a burned tattoo can be repaired by a tattoo artist.

This is most likely to work if your tattoo damage is primarily “superficial” — meaning that only the tattoo’s colour and definition are affected by the sun damage.

In fact, it is actually very common for individuals with tattoos lightly damaged from repeated sun exposure to seek repairs or “touch-ups.”

However, for more severely burned areas, such repairs will likely be unfeasible.

Your tattoo artist may even refuse to tattoo over an area that is too badly damaged.

If you decide to seek out a tattoo repair, be certain that the burned area is fully healed before proceeding.

Removing A Burned Tattoo

In the saddest and most severe cases of burned tattoos, individuals with badly damaged tattoos may seek complete tattoo removal.

This is of course a decision made purely on aesthetics as a severely damaged tattoo is not “dangerous” per se.

However, if a tattoo has become unrecognizable, it may be time to consider removal.

This can typically be accomplished either by laser, surgical removal, chemicals, or dermabrasion.

While this may seem like an attractive option for those with badly damaged tattoos, it is important to understand that it should only be considered as a last resort.

Tattoo removal can be very painful and in some cases, the process may actually cause further damage and/or scarring to the already damaged area.

In some cases, a burned tattoo can be repaired by a tattoo artist.

Tattoo Sun Damage FAQs

When Can I Expose My Tattoo To The Sun?

The longer you wait to expose your new tattoo to the sun, the better.

That said, make sure to at least keep it covered for the first two to three weeks.

Does Cling Film Protect Tattoo From Sun?

No! Cling film does NOT protect your tattoo from the sun.

Be sure to properly cover your tattoo from the sun for the first two to three weeks.

Can I Put Sunscreen On My New Tattoo?

No! A new tattoo is an open wound, so do not apply sunscreen to your tattoo until it is fully healed.

Is Short Sun Exposure On My New Tattoo OK?

Do your best to avoid any sun exposure on your new tattoo.

That said, if you accidentally expose your new tattoo to the sun briefly, do not panic.

Very brief exposure is unlikely to result in any serious issues.

Can I Cover My New Tattoo From The Sun With A Shirt?

Yes, you can cover a new tattoo from the sun with a shirt.

That said, you must make sure any clothing covering a new tattoo is loose enough to not touch the tattoo.

Make sure any clothing covering a new tattoo is loose enough to not touch the tattoo.

Key Takeaways On Sun Damaged Tattoos

Sun damage is serious business, and it can take a toll on your tattoos.

If you have a new tattoo, it is crucial that you avoid sun exposure.

For those with healed tattoos, this is less important. However, long-term exposure is likely to discolour and fade the pigments in your tattoo.

If you have an old tattoo, make sure to protect them with sunscreen (at least SPF 30) when you’re out in the sun and reapply often. 

If you have sustained sun damage, be sure to act fast.

If you have a severe sunburn, make sure to seek appropriate medical attention quickly.

Once you have recovered, it may be possible to either repair or remove a damaged tattoo, if the sun damage warrants it.

If you have any questions about how to protect your tattoos from the sun or what kind of sunscreen to use, be sure to ask your tattoo artist — they should be more than happy to help!