Summer is right around the corner. One of the best parts of this time of year is getting to show off that new tattoo that’s been covered up under layers of clothing.
However, the sun is one of the biggest enemies of a tattoo. You spent a lot of money, time and pain getting your ink just the way you like it, and the idea of it fading is a distressing one. But that fading can be reduced or avoided with a little science know-how.
Skin chemistry is my specialty, but as someone who is tattoo-less, I needed to learn a thing or two about tattooing. I went down to my local tattoo parlor, 1st Amendment Tattoo. Will, the owner, was really helpful and explained the ins and outs of tattooing and proper tattoo care.
INITIAL TATTOO CARE
First and foremost, cleanliness is key. According to Will, a healthy well-healed tattoo will last ages. The most critical phase in your young tattoo’s life is the first few weeks and ensuring proper healing, keeping it clean with an anti-bac soap and well moisturized with a dye-free, fragrance-free lotion. He made sure to emphasise this point and I’ll explain why.
Fragrances and dyes make an attractive lotion even better--we all know the flowery or sweet or musky scent of our favorite scented lotion--but getting that fragrance there and eventually up your nose requires two classes of chemicals: volatiles and solvents.
Volatiles are the chemicals that make a liquid airborne. Without this, no one could smell your favorite perfume unless their nose makes direct contact with your skin--awkward on that first date. Solvents are what hold those volatile fragrance notes in your product so they don't separate out in your bottle.
These two types of chemicals are fine for most people and most skin types, but they can cause irritation and impede skin healing. Therefore, if you just got a tattoo, are trying to heal up a scar, or have a general skin sensitivity, fragrances are a big thing to avoid.
THE SUN’S EFFECT ON INK
OK, so you were good to your new tattoo, and a few weeks have passed and your tattoo looks amazing! Time to go party on a houseboat, right?
HOLD UP! The sun wants to rain on your tattoo parade. Sun-fading is the number-two thing to watch out for when it comes to tattoo care and longevity. UVA, UVB and, as we now know, IR rays will damage your healthy skin, and wreak havoc on skin that has been tattooed.
A little history: Tattooing has been a popular form of body art for centuries and has been found in tribes across the globe. Traditionally, tattoo ink was made with natural dyes made from plants, fruits and seeds, or ash. To apply these tattoos, designs were cut into the skin and then rubbed with the desired color. When the resulting scar tissue would form, it would heal over the color and stain the scar tissue, resulting in the permanent tattoo. As centuries passed and tattooing grew into an industry, the inks evolved to the dyes and pigments that are used today.
The tattoo industry, for the most part, is well-funded and profitable. In the last few decades, tattoo artists moved from creating their own liquid dyes to being able to purchase them from ink suppliers. But what is tattoo ink?
The tattoo industry can be a secretive one and, unlike cosmetics, tattoo ink companies do not need to disclose the chemicals used for their pigments. However, after I did a little digging around, it appears that many of the pigments are either iron oxides (rust) that account for the blacks, reds and browns; or for the more exotic colors, heavy metals: cadmium (red, orange, yellow); zinc (yellow, white); chromium (green); cobalt (blue); aluminium (green, violet) and copper (blue, green).
These pigments are robust, and their heavy metal nature (although not the healthiest biologically) make them very stable color-wise. However, inspite of their stability, UVA and UVB rays will still affect them and as the years pass the colors will fade.
Another reason colors can appear duller is an aspect of what many people love about the sun: tanning.
Tattooing involves the placement of pigment into the skin's dermis-epidermis junction (DEJ), the layer of cells between the dermal tissue and the underlying the epidermis. If your skin were a cake, this area would be the strawberry filling between the two layers.
After the initial injection, the pigment is dispersed throughout the newly damaged layer of DEJ. When your body recognizes the presence of foreign material, it activates the immune system to engulf the pigment particles. As healing proceeds, the damaged epidermis (outer layer) flakes away, eliminating the surface pigment, while scar tissue forms deeper in the skin. This is later converted to stained connective tissue (collagen) and mends the upper dermis, where pigment remains trapped within fibroblasts in the DEJ.
Your tattoo ink lives in a special place in your skin. It is in the location where your basal cells create new skin cells and where a special type of skin cell lives: melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that when activated by UV light secrete melanin, the amino acid pigment that causes that golden tan. This pigment gets absorbed by the skin cells in the epidermis (outer layer).
Going back to that “slice of cake,” the melanocytes are in the “strawberry filling,” but the tanning pigment floats up to the… uh... frosting layer. When this happens, it ends up on top of your tattoo ink and causes the colors to appear dull. Your whites, yellow and greens will all have a browner shade to them. Your skin is actually producing a tinted layer that dulls and distorts your tattoo colors.
So one of the best ways to make sure you keep those melanocytes at bay is to use sunscreen.
There are plenty of products marketed specifically as sunscreens for tattoos. They are nice because they come in stick form, so it’s handy for getting your tattoo covered completely, but as far as any “enhanced color protection,” there’s nothing special in the ingredients that support this type of claim.
A STEP FURTHER THAN SUNSCREEN
Bleach-free skin brighteners are more popular now than ever and there are a slew of them on the market. But will these lighten your skin and your tattoo? Not if you choose the right one.
There are two basic types of lighteners: desquimators (designed to flake off skin) and melanocyte inhibitors (designed to get your melanocytes to put the brakes on producing tan skin). Desquimators are typically found in the form of AHA exfoliators. These work great on the skin, but all they do is remove your epidermal skin (skin that has been tanned)--it does not stop the tan from happening. For this you need a type of active that stops tyrosine from being produced.
Tyrosine is the amino acid that makes up melanin. In your melanocytes, UV light activates the tyrosinase cascade and eventually produces melanin. When tyrosinase inhibitors like hydroquinone, kojic acid, arbutin, and beta-peptides are used, they essentially put a block in the way of the melanin production.
This type of chemistry is not cheap and it does take at least one skin cycle (28 days) to show effect. The good news, if you really want to tan, you only need to apply on the areas of your skin that has the tattoo, the rest of your body can get a tan.
So go out there and let the world enjoy your body art knowing a little more about how to keep them looking great.