Australia for the most part is a summer country and the sun is usually shining and burning bright. If you’re a tattooed soul then conventional wisdom says you have but little choice; cover-up, apply a high spf sun cream or risk destroying your coveted artwork. Truth of the matter is your choices are different that what you would believe if you really want to save your ink from sun damage, and please note I said save your ‘ink’ from damage, not your skin.
If you can’t/won’t/don’t want to- cover-up your tattoo with thick clothing in the summer to block harmful UV rays then you only have the option of sun protection.
There is so much mis-information released to the public about how to protect themselves from the sun that it’s hard to know what to believe is the way to go. When considering protecting your tattoo from the sun you have a whole other consideration and that is the tattoo pigment itself that is buried in your skin has different protection needs than your rejuvenating skin does as once pigment has been damaged it cannot repair itself.
While not getting too complicated I’ll give you a run down of what’s happening when the sun is shining on you on a summers day. Without stating the obvious, the sun releases a whole lot of energy, what we are focusing on is the invisible UV light that is the most damaging to our skin, UVA, UVB and UVC, while we cannot see it we can feel its warmth on our skin. The ozone layer filters out UVC, which is the most dangerous, while UVA & B make it down to our level and penetrate our skin with this damaging UV radiation. Most of the UVB is also filtered out by the ozone layer but enough gets through of this wavelength that it gives us tans and even sunburns if we are not careful. The majority of the ulravoiolet light that gets through is UVA, the one responsible for skin cancers and melanomas as it penetrates the skin deeper causing serious damage and premature aging of the skin cells.
Side note: Despite what we are told, the suns rays are good for us in moderate amounts, we only get 10% of vitamin D from our food and the rest we absorb from the sun, while regular tanning may not be healthy, full body exposure to the sun for 10 minutes a day, a few days a week, is not only healthy but necessary to our well being and will not hurt your tattoo if moderation is used.
The two types of creams that are used for protection from the suns rays are chemical absorbers and surface blockers. The first; chemical absorbers, which are pretty much any cream that isn’t white zinc oxide/titanium dioxide, works by being applied into the skin and then reacting with the UV rays as they penetrate your skin by absorbing the energy and dissipating it through heat. Most of these creams are geared towards the UVB wavelength to prevent sunburns, so while you may not be getting burned, you may be exposing your poor skin to copious amounts of UVA rays which can cause cell mutation, early aging and massively increase your chance of skin cancer.
Not to mention these creams do absolutely nothing to protect your tattoo pigments from UV damage, they might filter out some of the UV rays but not all and your ink will be irreversibly changed. Tattoo inks are not lightfast, meaning they fade, UV rays break down the chemical structure of the pigments and degrade them. Like leaving a picture in the sun, a painting by the window or any other object that has been left in the sunlight over time, it fades out and eventually is destroyed. I have seen bright pink turn to brown after one afternoon in the sun due the radiation completely changing the chemical composition of the pigment and making it a ‘new’ color, also full sleeves turn murky after only a few exposures to the sun and not ever come back to their prior glory, what a waste! I am constantly admonishing my clients to ‘stay out of the fucking sun!’ The thing with sun creams is that they must be applied 30 minutes before exposure to actually work! And then reapplied every 90-120 minutes to continue working and more often if your swim or sweat. I don’t know anyone that dedicated on a regular basis.
And then we get to the health factors, there is some scientific correlation between a few of the chemicals used in sun creams and the acceleration of some skin cancers when applied, these chemicals are absorbed through the skin where they enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the immune system. Artificial fragrances, just by themselves, may contain dozens of carcinogenic chemicals that damage the liver, the heart, and even promote systemic cancer and some of the other common chemicals used in sun creams are known endocrine-disruptors that can have negative impact on pre-cancerous cells and hormone levels! Really? With all the other things that can ruin our health do we really need to rub this stuff all over our bodies?? If you must use it make sure to find a broad spectrum UVA-UVA infrared cream and use as directed. A lot of these creams are known irritants as well so patch test on yourself first to make sure you are not allergic.
Simple and time tested, white zine oxide/titanium dioxide cream. It is inert, does not absorb into the skin and completely blocks all spectrum UV rays from damaging your skin and your ink. The white shiny cream reflects and scatters the UV radiation away from you and keeps you safe and your ink perfect and bright every time. It also reflects the Vitamin D so make sure you do get some sun exposure. Vitamin D is the #1 cancer-fighting agent. It is noteworthy that skin cancer can also be brought on by a vitamin D deficiency.
There is also invisible zinc cream, I do not recommend it as it doesn’t offer the overall protection and reflection of traditional white zine and the ‘nanoparticles’ of zinc oxide, the invisible zinc, are absorbed into your skin and can be converted into free radicals by sun exposure and cause harm… go figure! While the nanoparticles are often coated to prevent this happening they do degrade.. so why take the chance?
At the end of the day, if you are a keen collector of colorful tattoos then you have to make a choice, the tattoos or the sun. You can’t have both. Going with black only tattoos or black and grey shaded work is an option, the sun will still fade these out over time. Alas, life is meant to be lived.. my advice is to let your new tattoo spend at least a season out of the sun completely so it can ‘settle’ into the skin and then just be smart with the sun. The quickest way to ruin a new tattoo is immediate exposure, as newly formed skin on a fresh tattoo has no natural sun blocking capabilities. Keep that in mind!
In conclusion, avoid the sun altogether, cover with thick protective clothing (flimsy shirts do not block UV rays) or use white zinc on your ink to keep it bright!
Here is a great link on UV and lots more information on the damage it causes and how to protect yourself and your stuff! Thanks to Lisa and Carrie