How Does A Tattoo Change – Everything You Need to Know

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After your tattoo has fully healed, go ahead and enjoy the hot tub and indulge in chlorinated pools to your heart’s content. However, be aware that sunlight is now your tattoo’s arch-enemy. It will relentlessly fade the colors and erase the vibrancy that once was.

It’s an ironic twist, considering you probably want everyone to see your new tattoo. Nevertheless, it’s best to save the viewing for indoor settings, despite the temptation to show it off at the beach.

The Effects of the Sun

You may be accustomed to the sun altering your skin, causing it to darken and develop a tan due to the production of melanin in the epidermis, a process that happens to all skin types.

Sun Tanning (Photo by  Onetwo1 / CC BY)
Sun Tanning (Photo by Onetwo1 / CC BY)

However, melanin is only produced in response to specific radiation, namely ultraviolet (UV) radiation, as a means of shielding cells from UV damage. This is a natural protective mechanism of the skin that is both necessary and effective.

3D Cross-section Showing Skin Tone Becoming Darker Due to the Production of More Melanin to Overcome the Damage Caused by Sun Tanning (Image by ScientificAnimations / CC BY)
3D Cross-section Showing Skin Tone Becoming Darker Due to the Production of More Melanin to Overcome the Damage Caused by Sun Tanning (Image by ScientificAnimations / CC BY)

However, the impact of a sun tan on tattoo visibility is worth considering. As you view your tattoo, keep in mind that you are looking through the epidermis, and the darker the epidermis (due to increased melanin production), the darker the tattoo will appear.

Fade Out

Tattoos are susceptible to fading when exposed to sunlight just like other colors. It’s a process known as photodegradation. Exposure to both UV and visible light contribute to this process, but it’s the harmful UV radiation that is responsible.

All pigments absorb and reflect light as part of their normal function. When you’re looking at a red heart on a bumper sticker, you see red because the blue and yellow wavelengths are being absorbed but the red is being reflected.

Chin Women in Burma with Faded Facial Tattoos (Photo by Daniel Julie / CC BY).
Chin Women in Burma with Faded Facial Tattoos (Photo by Daniel Julie / CC BY)

When harmful UV radiation is absorbed by a pigment, it breaks down the chemical bonds. The result is a pigment that doesn’t absorb or reflect as well.

For example, in the red heart on the bumper sticker, less red is reflected and possibly also more blue and yellow, which used to be absorbed. 

As a result, we observe a less intense version of the original color. Unfortunately, this is the case for all colored objects.

Tattoos, which are typically made up of darker colors (like black outlines), absorb more light than they reflect. By the way, this is also why black clothes in the summer sun make you more hot than white.

If color preservation is your goal, then keeping your tattoo away from sunlight is crucial.

Your Skin Is A Defense Mechanism

Tattoos also face the challenge of fading due to their placement within a living organism, namely our skin. During your tattoo, some ink was deposited in your epidermis.

As the epidermis sheds and regenerates itself every 35 to 45 days, the ink in it leaves too. That’s just part of the process and to be expected.

But even for ink that does penetrate into the dermis, there are still some factors that can lead to fading. Your body will recognize it as a foreign object and attempt to remove it.

Tattoo Ink (Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash)
Tattoo Ink (Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash)

The immune system will try to engulf the pigment molecule with a large white blood cell known as a macrophage. If the pigment molecule is too large, the immune system may try to dissolve it into smaller parts.

Although tattoo pigment is resistant to dissolving, the immune system will still capture what it can over time and transport it through the lymph system. The lymph nodes closest to your tattoo are likely to contain some of the captured tattoo pigment.

However, the immune system only carries away a small percentage of the pigment, and the remaining pigment is captured in fibroblasts and macrophages.

Which Color Fades the Fastest?

The rate at which tattoo colors fade varies depending on the specific molecular composition of the pigment used. The stability of the chemical bonds in the pigment also plays a role.

Unfortunately, the ingredients in tattoo pigments are largely unknown, and even when they are known, their composition is often kept secret.

Tattoo with Red PIgment (Photo by Jan Kopriva on Unsplash)
Tattoo with Red PIgment (Photo by Jan Kopriva on Unsplash)

Despite this lack of information, there is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests that red tends to fade the fastest. We’ve all seen those bumper sticks with a heart where the red heart has almost disappeared. In some tattoos that are several decades old, the red pigment may have completely disappeared.


The key to preserving tattoos is not to attack the problem head-on, but to run away. Avoid the sun altogether. The simplest and most effective way to do that is to cover the tattoo with clothing.

A well-executed tattoo that has healed properly and is shielded from sunlight can maintain its vibrancy for many years.

Vibrant Fox Tattoo (Photo by Vladislav Todorov on Unsplash)
Vibrant Fox Tattoo (Photo by Vladislav Todorov on Unsplash)

Ironically, however, this is not why most people get tattoos; they want to display them. If you must show off your tattoo, do it indoors.

If you must display it outside, choose a cloudy day, or early morning or late afternoon. And regardless of when or where you show it, always apply sunscreen, without fail.

Sunscreen or Sunblock?

Sunscreen and sunblock serve different purposes in protecting the skin from the sun’s harmful rays.

Sunscreen uses chemicals to absorb the UV radiation and prevent as much of it as possible from reaching the skin. It is generally transparent after application.

In contrast, sunblock physically blocks the sun’s rays from hitting the skin. White zinc oxide, often seen on the noses of lifeguards and sailors, is an example of sunblock.

Sunblock (Photo by CNX / CC BY)
Sunblock (Photo by CNX / CC BY)

The American Cancer Society recommends using at least a broad spectrum SPF15 sunscreen or sunblock to protect the skin from sun damage. Proper application is also crucial, especially if you’ll be sweating or going in the water.

It is important to note that tattoos do not protect the skin from sunburn, as they reside in the dermis while the cells that create a suntan and natural skin color reside in the epidermis. Therefore, it is essential to protect both the skin and the tattoo from sun damage with proper sun protection.

Stretch and Shrink

Tattoos have some degree of flexibility, but it’s not unlimited. If you gain or lose weight slowly and gradually, your tattoo will also stretch or shrink proportionally with little impact.

Imagine a slightly over or under inflated balloon with writing on it: the text is still readable and maintains its original composition. However, rapid changes in weight can cause problems.

Stretch Marks

For instance, women who plan on having children may want to avoid getting a tattoo on their abdomen. Similarly, men who intend to become serious bodybuilders should think twice before getting an upper arm band tattoo.

Stretch Marks on the Back of a 13 Year Old Male (Photo by Josephrockz4 / CC BY)
Stretch Marks on the Back of a 13 Year Old Male (Photo by Josephrockz4 / CC BY)

Stretch marks, which are common during pregnancy, but can affect both women and men, can appear on the arms, thighs, buttocks, hips, and lower back.

They are caused by damage to the elastin and collagen that normally give skin its elasticity. When they break, they form scar tissue, which is the stretch mark. Like any other type of scar, stretch marks can obscure your tattoo.

Weight Gain and Weight Loss

Even if rapid weight gain or weight loss doesn’t create stretch marks, a tattoo will still change as the tattooed skin expands or contracts.

Happy Plus-Size Lady with Tattoos (Photo by AllGo on Unsplash)
Happy Plus-Size Lady with Tattoos (Photo by AllGo on Unsplash)

In the example above, imagine that balloon with writing on it. If it’s allowed to lose half of its air, the text might not be readable. Likewise, if it’s allowed to stretch to twice its size, it could be equally hard to read.

If you’re expecting your size to change, for any reason, consider the placement of your tattoo. Tattoos stretch and shrink, but not infinitely. It’s a topic that you can discuss with your tattoo artist.

Skin Changes and Blurred Tattoo Ink

The main reasons that tattoos blur are similar to those for fading that I discussed above. When exposed to the sun, chemical bonds break down, causing the molecules to break apart, and the body’s immune system tries to remove them.

Hand and Finger Tattoos (Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash)
Hand and Finger Tattoos (Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash)

But there are also special places on the body that constantly stretch, such as the elbows, knees, and even hands, are more prone to blurring due to the stretch and shrink reasons we’ve already discussed.

Also, tattoos done on skin that has already been damaged by excessive sun exposure seem to be more susceptible to blurring since the skin is less capable of holding the ink firmly in place.

All Tattoos Change

While tattoos inevitably undergo changes over time, there are practical steps that can minimize or prevent unwanted alterations.

Tattoo artists are hesitant to estimate the lifespan of a tattoo (which can essentially be forever) or how long it will maintain its appearance (which varies greatly).

The durability of a tattoo depends on several factors, including its initial quality, the healing process, upkeep, and an individual’s specific skin and how it reacts to ink, making it impossible to predict.

Forever Tattoo (Photo by Javcon117 / CC BY)
Forever Tattoo (Photo by Javcon117 / CC BY)

Even a well-executed, simple tattoo, such as a lettered word on the knuckles, never exposed to sun, may begin to fade and blur during its first year, because of how the skin stretches over the joints.

However, the same lettering placed on the back of the shoulder, which healed properly, remained covered, and did not stretch or shrink excessively, might remain nearly as legible and crisp in its second decade as it was in its second week.

Final Thoughts

Let us acknowledge that as we age, our tattoos will naturally change in appearance. The clarity and color of our tattoos will likely be affected by age spots and wrinkles.

Even the darkest and boldest outlines may soften and blur slightly over time, with lines appearing thicker and gaps between them narrowing or disappearing.

Shading that was once bright may become less immediate and vibrant. Pigment may shift on a cellular level as our skin loses elasticity and resilience.

These changes are inevitable and a natural result of aging. There is no way to avoid that process–for our ink, our skin, or ourselves. Ultimately, it’s our attitudes towards these changes that determine whether we see our aging tattoos as attractive or not.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Tattoos Change with Weight Gain or Loss?

Only in cases of drastic weight loss or gain will you see a change in the tattoo.

How Do I Minimize Tattoo Distortion?

Thoughtful body placement is your best defense when it comes to distortion. Consulting with a professional tattoo artist who can give you a few options can help you to find an ideal location.

Can You Tattoo Over Stretch Marks?

A skilled and experienced tattoo artist can tattoo over stretch marks. Be aware that a stretch mark is essentially a scar, and thus more difficult to tattoo than healthy skin.

March 10, 2023