Ways to Keep Your Old Tattoos Looking Fresh and New

By: Allison Troutner  | 

pretty woman with tattoos
Tattoos age just like we do, but there are plenty of things you can do to make them pop and look fresh even if they're old. Robert Recker/Getty Images

There's nothing like the feeling of a tightly wrapped, freshly inked tattoo. When you get home and peel off the protective plastic wrap to wash your new tattoo, the colors are bold, the lines are sharp and you feel like a walking masterpiece.

However, as the years go on, you notice those colors are lighter and those lines aren't as defined. As your tattoo fades, you may question the quality of the ink or the artist, but they're likely not at fault.

Instead, you can blame that fading on the aging process, sun damage or even on yourself for not wearing sunscreen and other poor health habits, like smoking. Because most of the reasons tattoos fade are natural. But there are simple things you can do to prevent changes in their appearance. Still, tattoos will age just like we do, but perhaps it's time to embrace that aging is part of the beauty of tattoos.

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What Causes Tattoo Fading?

Tattoos are simply marks or designs created by ink deposited beneath the epidermis — or skin — with needles. The ink should go deep enough so it won't be shed with the upper layers of your skin cells.

However, your body can break down and absorb the ink over time, but the main culprit for a change in the appearance of tattoos is sun exposure and aging skin, says Megan Zoeller, co-owner of The Collective, a tattoo studio in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Though we like to treat our skin like a canvas, our skin cells are elastic and loosen over time. As we age and our skin becomes more pliable, so the lines and edges of tattoos can blur, Zoeller says.

"Tattoos fade because we are human and we age," she says. "Skin will wrinkle and sag, which affects the appearance of tattoos. All tattoos will soften and spread on the skin over time. Lines will get a little thicker, a little softer, which can be bad for very small details."

UV rays also break down collagen fibers in the skin, which contain pigment. Sun exposure, especially on unprotected skin, can harm the color pigments in your tattoo. Alas, there's no stopping time, but there are several things you can do to care for your tattoo for years to come.

tattoo artist
Choosing the right tattoo artist is one of the most essential steps to getting a tattoo that will look as good 10 years from now as it does as the day you get it.
ROBERTO PERI/Getty Images

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Prevention Starts Before You Get a Tattoo

If you don't like the idea of a faded tattoo, there are a couple of essential steps you should take before ink ever touches your skin, including choosing the right tattoo placement, selecting a reliable tattoo artist and establishing healthy skincare habits.

  • Placement and style matter: Just like your favorite pair of jeans soften, high-traffic areas on your body get more wear, too. Tattoos on the palms of your hands, feet, shoulder blades or inner thighs may fade faster. Areas like elbows, feet, hands and inside the upper arm are also high-friction areas, so color will fade in those areas faster.
  • Style impacts fading too: "I do think if a tattoo has a black outline, it will age and hold its shape a little better than those without," Zoeller says. "Colors can fade, lighter colors especially. However, a color tattoo done well should look great for a very long time."
  • Choose the right artist: The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate tattoo ink, so find an artist who uses high-quality ink applied properly to the skin, which will help the color last longer. Choose an artist using sterile equipment to prevent infection, and one who has experience working with tattoos on your skin tone. "Check their social media for photos [of healed tattoos]. If you are melanin-rich, look for photos of similar skin tones," says Zoeller. Stick with an artist that is an expert in the style you prefer, as well.
  • Healthy habits: It might seem surprising, but a well-rounded diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and water goes a long way to improve overall health, including keeping your skin healthy and hydrated. "A good moisturizer is great for skin, tattooed or not. Sunscreen is always a good idea as well; a good diet and water all go a long way," Zoeller says. Other healthy habits, like not smoking, can help, too. Research shows that smoking can decrease collagen in your body, which makes your skin more elastic.

If you want bonus points from your tattoo artist, drink plenty of water before your appointment, Zoeller suggests. "Even a light exfoliation of the skin a day or two before your appointment can make the tattoo process a little easier for the tattooer," she says.

new tattoo in plastic wrap
It's up to you to use best practices after you get your tattoo. That means follow your tattoo artist's instruction on how to keep it clean and wrapped.
Kzenon/Shutterstock

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What to Do After You Get Your Tattoo

The first step after your tattoo, Zoeller says, is to closely follow your tattooer's instructions for aftercare. "They can differ slightly, but definitely don't go swimming or sunning," she says.

  • Keep the tattoo covered for several hours at minimum.
  • When you remove the bandage, wash it with a fragrance free, antibacterial soap and lukewarm water and pat it dry.
  • Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. This protects your new tattoo from drying out and bleeding.

We all know we should drink more water and wear sunscreen, but Zoeller says this is essential for tattoo protection, too.

Moisturizing improves your skin's elasticity, which can postpone wrinkles and the effects of aging on your tattoo. Moisturizing creams like Aquaphor will do the trick, but some tattoo enthusiasts have developed their own all-natural moisturizing balms for healed tattoos, like Mad Rabbit's Tattoo Balm. It's made with a blend of beeswax, shea butter, cocoa butter, sweet almond and calendula. You can apply it daily on new and old tattoos.

If you are going out in the sun with your healed tattoo, apply sunscreen and drink water. Experts say your sunscreen should have an SPF of at least 30 for daily use and even higher if you're at a high altitude or somewhere like the beach.

woman moisturizing tattoo
One of the easiest ways to keep your tattoo from fading? Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.
FG Trade/Getty Images

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Should You Get Your Tattoo Touched Up?

If you are worried about the appearance, Zoeller says you can certainly refresh an old tattoo, but keep in mind that it can't fix other effects of aging. "If the issue with the tattoo is that small details have blurred or become hard to read, adding more ink to that area will not solve the issue," she says.

So just understand that tattoos will fade — it's a natural part of the artistic medium. If you are looking for a tattoo that won't fade or age as you age, Zoeller says you should just "rethink it."

Zoeller has been tattooing for 16 years and says that, while we should do all we can to care for ourselves and our tattoos, age is part of the beauty.

"Try to remember that aging is a privilege and the old, soft and fuzzy tattoos are just as cool as the fresh new ones," she says. "You can help slow the fading, but time marches on, and that is part of the beauty of tattoos."

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