Peony is a tattooed tattoo enthusiast who loves studying and discussing tattoo history and meanings. Japanese themes are her favorite.
Tattoos are permanent, but the ink pigments that form your art can degrade to look dull and lifeless with time or improper care. Fading is an inevitable process (just like aging), but if you want your tattoo colors to stay nice, bright and vivid, you'll want to know what to do.
However, please note that newly tattooed skin is essentially a weeping wound. Some of the steps mentioned are only suitable for fully healed tattoos. It generally takes a month to heal but may take longer, depending on the individual.
For clarity, I will mark with a disclaimer the steps that are appropriate for fresh and/or completely healed tattoos so you can avoid any confusion.
Exfoliate Your Tattooed Skin
✻ Only on completely healed tattoos ✻
It’s a misconception that the more you exfoliate, the more ink you remove. That couldn’t be any further from the truth for two very simple reasons:
- Exfoliation only lifts off the outermost layer of your skin and your tattoo ink is deposited way beneath that — in fact, it is hidden under several sub-layers.
- Even for non-tattooed skin, dead skin cells dull the overall complexion, so by removing them, the clearer, healthier looking skin underneath is revealed.
What Happens When You Exfoliate Tattooed Skin
Our skin is made up of three layers: epidermis (which has five sublayers) on the top, dermis, and hypodermis (tissue layer) below.
Exfoliation happens when the outermost layer (first layer of the epidermis — stratum corneum) is shed or removed. Your tattoo is in the dermis layer. If the ink is deposited any higher, your tattoo will “bleed.” A good, qualified tattoo artist will make sure that doesn't happen.
When you get rid of all the grimy dead skin cells, you help uncover the supple, new skin under it. Which is why you’ll often find that skin that’s just been exfoliated tends to feel smoother and softer.
Before and After
An analogy I like to use in simplifying my explanation: Imagine your tattooed skin as a beautiful painting, old skin is the aged varnish that yellows and distorts the visual look of the colors beneath. Once the old varnish gets cleaned up, your painting is good as new.
How to Correctly Exfoliate Tattooed Skin
Both physical and chemical exfoliators are great for body skin (facial skin might require gentler formulations as that skin is thinner and more prone to damage).
Physical exfoliants include scrubs, microfiber or terry cloths, cleansing brushes, exfoliating mitts/gloves, loofahs, and other natural sponges. Anything that requires a little elbow grease to slough off dead skin falls into this category.
Chemical exfoliants use — you guessed it— chemicals or acids to gently dissolve or dislodge pesky old skin cells. Exfoliating moisturizers or body washes with AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) such as lactic acid or BHA (beta hydroxy acid) do a great job of eradicating dead skin and help lifeless-looking tattoos appear richer in color saturation.
You can even mix up your own DIY tattoo scrubs at home (links to simple scrub recipes using household ingredients).
How Often Should I Exfoliate?
Even though exfoliation helps the skin shedding process, doing it too often can compromise your skin’s moisture barrier, throwing off the natural chemical balance of healthy skin. The last thing you want is sensitive skin. So once or twice a week at most is generally sufficient.
Moisturize and Hydrate
Moisturizing is essential in most skincare routines. It's a simple but highly effective step for maintaining healthy tattooed skin.
In almost all cases, a tattooist will send you home with aftercare instructions that will include applying some kind of moisturizer or healing balm/ointment to help the healing process.
This is important for both healed and healing tattoos.
For fresh tattoos, it keeps the skin nourished and supple and eases itching, dryness, and peeling as the dead skin layers shed. The hydration also prevents your tattoo from cracking (ouch), which is both painful and detrimental to the final outcome.
For fully healed tattoos, a healthy and uncompromised skin barrier provides for richer colors and details.
How to Correctly Moisturize Tattooed Skin
Always make sure your tattoo is freshly cleansed before applying moisturizer. Wash with a gentle but effective body wash. You run the risk of a rash or infection applying moisturizer on skin that hasn't been cleaned, because what you are doing is to basically occlude (cover) the skin and trap bacteria and dirt under a layer of cream.
Dab your skin dry with a clean towel and apply a thin layer of moisturizer. Applying too much moisturizer might cause your pores to clog and develop nasty little whiteheads or pimples.
Drink Plenty of Water
✻ Both fresh and completely healed tattoos ✻
This may sound like a no-brainer, but many people tend to forget that water is a great source of nourishment for your skin.
Water, plain and simple, hydrates your skin cells and plumps them up. This diminishes the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and dullness. Parched skin causes dryness and is a bad environment for a healing tattoo (see above regarding skin cracking).
Adequate water intake helps flush out toxins and aids in cell renewal, turnover and keeps all its functions performing at best—such as keeping out germs and infectious microbes.
It also regulates blood flow and circulation, giving your skin glow a natural healthy glow.
Protect Tattooed Skin from the Sun
✻ Both fresh and completely healed tattoos ✻
Avoid Ultraviolet (UV) Rays
This means, no sunbeds or tanning booths. Tanning devices emit artificial UV radiation to create a cosmetic tan, these ultraviolet light can break down the chemical structure of the pigment in tattoo inks, as well as increase the possibility of skin cancer.
Regardless of where it comes from — the sun or a tanning bed — UV rays are bad for your skin in general and dulls your tattoos.
Avoid prolonged sun exposure between 10 am to 2 pm, these are the hours were sun intensity peaks and UV radiation is strongest.
For fresh tattoos, have your tattoos properly covered and away from direct sunlight (you might find that it burns or stings if you do not). If your tattoos have already healed, apply a broad spectrum sunscreen generously, and frequently — ideally a SPF30 and above.
Broad spectrum (also known as full spectrum) means that the product can protect you from both UVA and UVB.
UV Rays Mini Crash Course
Prematurely ages your skin, causes wrinkles and a loss in skin elasticity, dark spots
This is the guy that gives you a sunburn
The general consensus is that both UVB and UVA rays contributes to skin cancer, they alter the DNA of your skin on a cellular level and causes cell mutations, and ultimately, skin cancer.
If you love having your body in a sun kissed bronzed shade, try alternatives such as fake tanners or self-tanners. Sometimes known as “sunless tanning”, these bronzing solutions are topical applications of skin-safe chemicals in various methods.
You can get yourself spray tanned at a profession studio where you get coated with even mists of DHA. Or, if you’re an avid DIY type, self-tanners now come in a myriad of forms — from gels, lotions, aerosol spray cans, mousse, dry oils to even towelettes you basically wipe on! All these options provide such a diverse way of achieving that beachy glow, all at your own time and within the comforts of your own home.
Tattoo Touch Ups
Everybody heals at different speeds and our skins' recovery process can sometimes produce outcomes that are less than desirable — sometimes due to the application technique, sometimes due to naturally occurring conditions of the skin.
You might be fully healed and find that colors may not be completely even throughout; accidentally rubbing your scab off might also create patches once your skin recovers. This is where a touch up (within six months to a year of a newly healed tattoo) comes in.
A touch up can enliven old tattoos, the same way it can "spruce up" an imperfectly healed tattoo.
Touch ups usually involve going over the existing tattoo with a fresh coat of color or to include additional details, but generally done in small sections where required — instead of the entire tattoo (unless it is a small one).
Depending on the common practice of where you are located, some tattoo artists may touch up your ink for free (if the original was done by them). Others will require a small fee.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a sleeve for 3-4 years. I use an exfoliating cloth once every two or three weeks and have noticed my a few areas of on my sleeve are raised or bumpy after the shower and exfoliating. It doesn’t hurt, I just notice when I’m putting lotion on. Within no time the skin on my arms are back to normal and soft as can be. Is this normal? Or should I discontinue using the exfoliating cloth? I’ve looked online for similar experiences to no avail.
Answer: What I'd say is that perhaps the exfoliating cloth — or it could also mean that this general method of physical exfoliation — isn't suitable for you. Bumps that appear (only) after exfoliation and disappear shortly (of if they're persistent) are signs of skin irritation and a sort of red flag/defense mechanism to signal a stop.
If you feel that besides the initial bump that goes away fairly quickly isn't a big deal to you, in my humble opinion, I'd just continue since it sounds like you're happy with the results. If you'd like to explore other types of exfoliation methods, chemical exfoliation is extremely effective and can be very gentle (despite how it sounds, i.e. chemicals must be harsh).
Goat's milk soaps contain natural Lactic acid which is great! Exfoliate gently and daily while showering. But if you're thinking soap bars consider getting one with a low pH (less irritating as bar soaps tend to be more acidic and drying/moisture stripping). OR you can opt for an exfoliating lotion, I've great results with a Glycolic acid-based one. As you can see, I'm lazy and like my exfoliation products to be efficient and 2-in-1 :)
* Both Lactic and Glycolic acids are AHA - they are both exfoliating and humectant (locks in moisture)! Hope this helps!
© 2019 Peony
Peony (author) on February 17, 2020:
@Katrina - Aw shucks, thank you for thinking so! ❤
Katrina on February 17, 2020:
Thanks so much for these really informative tips, best info I’ve found on this topic
Peony (author) on November 06, 2019:
@leo - Hi! I'm sorry, since I'm unfamiliar with the silver + lactic acid rash cream you've mentioned, I'm unable to give you any advise with regards to how it could potentially affect your tattoo. But I would suggest that your top priority be that you heal your rash (and think about that fading later, as hard as it may be) because that sounds more important at this point. I would call the tattoo artist who'd originally done your tattoo and ask them for advice, they may have other clients who heal the same and offer a better solution or tip for you. Best of luck! ♡
leo on November 04, 2019:
i currently have a rash on my new tattoo and the pharmacy I went to gave me a silver cream with lactic acid, would that prematurely fade my tattpp?
Peony (author) on March 22, 2019:
@Sophia Thank you for reading! I'm glad it helped ❤
Sophia on March 13, 2019:
Very informative and well written, I’m getting on my skin care regimen now! Thanks for the info again & again