When I was little, my mom told me that if I got a tattoo, I’d never get a job. I certainly proved her wrong, but to her credit, she had no way of knowing just how common tattoos would become. Body art that was at one time reserved for rebels, sailors and military men is now celebrated by everyone from supermodels and Instagram celebrities to your local bank teller.
In fact, four out of 10 adults in the USA have at least one tattoo — and that number is steadily growing. Tattoos are now seen as wearable art, and sought-after artists have become celebrities in their own rights. But getting a tattoo is a big decision, and it’s important to do some research before committing. For example, those with more delicate designs might have to resign themselves to consistent touch-ups. Plus, skin cancer might be harder to find with a tattoo. If you’re thinking of joining the ranks of the inked, or just looking to keep an older tattoo looking fresh, here is everything you need to consider.
Find Your Personal Style
When deciding to get a tattoo, the first decision you should make is the style you want. Knowing what you’re looking for in this category will inform nearly everything else about the piece — the artist you want to go to, where it’s going to go on your body, if it’s going to have color. Does traditional artwork speak to you? Maybe you’re a fan of modern designs, or watercolor really resonates.
Go online to look at photos of tattoos you love and seek out the artists who did them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a specific artist directly (even if they don’t live in your area!) or ask a friend who has a tattoo you admire for recommendations. When you find work that speaks to you, save the images and bring them as reference for when you do finally book a consultation with an artist.
Keep in mind that certain types of tattoos require different upkeep and might require additional touch-ups (more on that later). “There is a trend right now of fine line, tiny, delicate tattoos,” says Sophie Bushman, manager of Nice Tattoo Parlor in Brooklyn, NY, an all-female tattoo shop that counts Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke as clients. “[These tattoos] do have a higher tendency of fading. Of course, it's always possible to get them touched up and keep them beautiful, but they tend to require a bit more upkeep than something a little bolder.” And don’t hesitate to ask the artist about usual upkeep for the style you chose before you get the tattoo.
Figure Out Your Placement
The placement of the piece on your body can sometimes have just as much to do with its longevity as any other aspects. For example, places where the skin is thinner or gets a lot of use will wear out faster. Think about the daily life of the area you’re getting tattooed. Parts like the side of the foot, which constantly rubs against your shoe, or your hands (which you constantly use and wash) are subject to constant stimulation. Regardless of the style you pick, that will be harsh on your ink.
Don’t Forget About Fading
Tattoos might be a permanent addition to your body, but that doesn’t mean they’ll look new and fresh forever. Every tattoo fades thanks to things like sun exposure, skin health and aging, but some types of tattoos resist fading better than others. “It's a general rule in tattooing that ‘bold holds,’” says Bushman. “The kind of very bold-line, traditional style will tend to last more so than others.”
Generally, the darker the tattoo the longer it will last, but everyone’s skin takes ink differently. “Just because you have a friend whose baby blue tattoo held up really well, doesn't necessarily mean it will be the same for you because everyone's skin is a little different,” Bushman is quick to note.
Pick a Color, Any Color
Speaking of color, it’s true that black and other dark colors do hold up the best over time. The lighter the color, the quicker it fades. “White ink tattoos are really popular right now,” says Bushman, adding that it’s a misconception they only show on light skin. This type of tattoo is especially prone to changing color over time. Depending on your skin, they can sometimes turn pink or yellowish and will likely require more upkeep than darker tattoos to keep them looking fresh.
Touch-Ups Are Key
Every tattoo, regardless of style and color, may require a touch-up. A good artist will let you know about this possibility before inking you, but don’t be afraid to ask. Also, pay attention to how it heals. “How it heals immediately is a good indicator of how it's going to look and how it's going to hold up,” says Bushman. “You'll know whether or not you'll need one within the first two months of having your tattoo.”
If the lines aren’t as crisp after it heals or the color isn’t as saturated as you expected, those are good reasons to ask for a touch-up. If you can, go back to the original artist. “They know your skin and they know what the tattoo looked like when it was first done,” advises Bushman. And of course, it is their art, so it's just the most courteous thing to do.
Aging Is Natural
Since a tattoo is a piece of work embedded in your skin, it’s also subject to the natural aging process. “When your skin loses its elasticity, the shape of the tattoo will change as well,” says NYC-based dermatologist Dr. John F. Adams, MD. The good news, however, is that an anti-aging routine for your ink shouldn’t be too different from your existing regimen. “Anything that we would do for normal skin that doesn't have a tattoo, we would do for something that has a tattoo,” says Dr. Adams. With the exception of certain lasers (which are used in tattoo removal), you don’t have to treat aging tattooed skin any differently than other (non-tattooed) parts of your body.
There is one important part of long term skin care that anyone with a tattoo should know beyond anti-aging, though. “Melanomas can be hidden in a tattoo because they're very difficult to see,” warns Dr. Adams. “When we do skin cancer screenings and somebody has a giant tattoo, it becomes very hard to see a dark mole, especially if it's changing and the ink is sort of obstructing that area.” So before you go for that back piece, keep in mind that your regular mole screenings will be just a little bit more difficult.
Discover Skincare Solutions
Immediate aftercare for healing a tattoo typically involves two main points: using a healing balm like Aquaphor® Healing Ointment ($14) or A&D® Original Ointment ($6) (which help to heal the wounds and regenerate the skin) and washing the fresh tattoo with fragrance-free, antibacterial soap like Dove® Sensitive Skin Body Wash ($10) or Dial® Baby Fragrance Free Body Wash ($12) (fragrances can irritate the compromised skin and delay healing). Clean it often and keep it moisturized to promote healing.
The moisturizing shouldn’t stop after it heals either. “You want to treat it the same as the most sensitive part of your skin,” says Bushman. “It makes all the difference in the longevity of your tattoo.” Nice Tattoo makes their own tattoo balm (sold only in their store) using ingredients like jojoba oil and Vitamin E to help keep their clients’ tattoos well-moisturized and protected.
Aside from your favorite body moisturizers, there are new products hitting the market specifically formulated to care for tattoos. Electric Ink Tattoo Care is a UK-based skincare brand that has specially formulated its Daily Moisturizer ($22) with coconut oil, red algae extract and something called Liftonin-Xpert, which they say helps maintain the vibrancy of tattoo ink.
Regular exfoliation helps maintain vibrancy as well, according to Oliver Holmes of Electric Ink. “When you get tattoos and they look like they've faded, it’s often a layer of dead skin across the top,” he says. Products like the brand’s Vibrancy Serum ($17), which contains amino acids for gentle exfoliation, and Exfoliating Body Wash ($12), which contains alpha hydroxy acids from fruit enzymes, are formulated to exfoliate tattoos safely. Really any exfoliator will do though, as long as it’s gentle.
Protect Yourself With SPF
Just like in skin health, the single most damaging thing in tattoo care is the sun. Keeping a fresh tattoo protected from the sun will ensure that it heals properly. “One of the enemies of wound healing is sunlight,” says Dr. Adams. Sun protection for tattoos, however, should never stop. Wearing SPF over tattoos at all times will prevent fading, discoloration and help extend the longevity of the ink. Some new sunscreens are specially made with tattoos in mind, like House 99® Bold Statement Tattoo Body Moisturizing Cream SPF 50 ($26), but any sunscreen will work. To really get the most protection, opt for an SPF 50 or higher.
Just In Case — Removal
No one would ever advise getting a tattoo that you expect to ever remove, but mistakes do happen. If you have buyer’s remorse and think you might want to get a tattoo removed, the most important thing to know is the darker the tattoo, the harder it is to remove. “The easiest sort of ink to get out is a thin black line,” says Dr. Adams. “Saturation is also really important. If somebody has had several touch ups, that makes it much more difficult.”
Other factors like colors (“blue and green are the hardest to remove,” says Dr. Adams), size, placement and age all factor into removing a tattoo and even then, it’s not foolproof. So think long and hard before you start the removal process and even harder before getting the tattoo in the first place. “As a general rule, I would say, I don't care how much you love a person, putting their name on your body is not a good idea,” Dr. Adams warns. “I can't tell you how many people I treat where it's removing somebody's name.”
Allergan may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.
Products may have been gifted to the author for the purpose of writing this article.