Some people might assume that summer is the perfect time to get a tattoo. After ditching wool sweaters for one-piece bathing suits that double as a top and swim attire, you're suddenly given ample opportunities to show off your existing body art, potentially inspiring you to add even more. But there are a few things you should know before you call your tattoo artist.
To start, just-tattooed skin is extra sensitive because the needle — or needles — creates micro-injuries in the skin, leaving the barrier compromised and more susceptible to burning and scarring, says dermatologist Matthew Lin, MD, FAAD. Essentially, your new tattoo is an open wound, which is why it's best to avoid extended sun exposure.
Unfortunately, this is one circumstance when sunscreen can't help you. In fact, putting sunscreen on a healing tattoo is a big no-no. The only products your tattoo needs to heal are Aquaphor and fragrance-free lotion. Other than that, the rule of thumb is to leave it alone — and keep it out of the sun at all costs. If you don't, the ink could fade and become patchy. "The risk of fading is greater when the tattoo is fresh, but fading can also occur with sunburns on older tattoos," Dr. Lin adds.
Chlorine isn't your friend either. Tattoo infections may not be common, but exposing your new tattoo to chlorinated water could introduce one. "It can also cause a rash known as irritant contact dermatitis," says Dr. Lin. Even worse, chlorine leaches ink from the tattoo, reducing the longevity of the design and the vibrancy of the ink. Salt and ocean water is just as harmful to new tattoos. Just like chlorine, the water can increase the risk of infection and fading, while the salt will dry out the skin and prolong the healing process.
You'll know your tattoo is healed after the ink fully settles into the skin and there's no sign of scabbing or peeling. According to dermatologist Robert Finney, MD, this could take a few weeks for tiny tattoos, but a little longer for anything large, like a sizable thigh or back tattoo. Once it's done healing, it's safe to put sunscreen on your tattoo and soak up the sun, just don't forget to reapply every two hours. If your tattoo doesn't heal within four weeks, or you notice it beginning to swell or ooze, call your doctor — this could be an infection.
Moral of the story? If you plan on spending most of your summer by the pool, consider moving your next tattoo appointment until after your sun-soaking days are behind you. If not, invest in a really big umbrella.