Have you ever wondered what your tattoos will look like in 10, 20, 30, or 40+ years? Tattoos age along with the rest of our bodies, but there are ways to preserve your tattoos over time. Where you have a tattoo placed impacts how it will age relative to the rest of your body, as do other factors, such as whether or not your tattoos were done by a professional, the type of tattoo ink used, and how well you maintain your weight. We break down everything you need to know about tattoos and aging here, starting with a few dos and don'ts you should follow to ensure that your tattoos stand the test of time.
Things That Impact Your Tattoo's Longevity
If you want to get a tattoo that will last a lifetime, one of the most critical choices in front of you is who to have ink your tattoo. It's extremely important to find a professional, experienced tattoo artist to do your tattoo for you if you want it to look great from the day it's done til the day you die. That doesn't mean you won't need a touch-up or two throughout the years if you want to maintain your tattoo's vibrancy. Even the most experienced tattoo artist can't magically eliminate issues like fading from sun exposure and cellular regeneration. The former is preventable, but the latter is just a fact of life.
You see, every day, thousands of cells in our bodies die, and they're replaced by fresh, new "blank" cells. On the surface of your skin--called the epidermis--skin cells die and slough off at a rapid pace. Fortunately, tattoo ink isn't injected into the epidermis. It's deposited further down, below a secondary layer of skin called the dermis--if you've been tattooed by a professional tattoo artist, that is. A novice may make the mistake of not injecting the ink deeply enough below the surface of the skin, in which case your tattoo could fade very quickly. A pro will be sure to place the ink deeply into the dermis, though, where it will stay safely embedded until your body slowly replaces dead cells with new ones. That process can take years, so it's not something you need to worry about immediately. Over time, though, you may start to notice little "blank spots" within your tattoo, which will become more noticeable as the plain new skin cells that have replaced dead ink-filled cells increase in number and form more visible clusters. The overall effect will make it look like your tattoo is fading, when in actuality, the colors are becoming mottled as ink-filled cells die off, leaving your tattoo interspersed with growing groups of skin-colored cells. Periodic touch-ups can brighten your tattoo back up again after it's begun to look faded.
When it comes to protecting your tattoo from sun exposure, you're in complete control. It's highly recommended that you avoid sun exposure altogether right after getting a new tattoo, during the first 2-4 weeks of the healing process. If you venture out in the sun before your tattoo is fully healed, make sure to apply a high-SPF sunscreen to your tattoo and keep it covered with clothing. Once your tattoo is fully healed, just make sure you apply sunscreen to your tattoo regularly whenever your skin's exposed. The better job you do of keeping your tattoo shielded from harmful UV rays, the longer it will stay vibrant.
The Placement of Your Tattoo Matters
As we age, some body parts are more prone to changing size than others. For instance, many men tend to gain weight in their stomachs and arms, whereas women tend to first put on weight in their breasts, buttocks, thighs, and lower abdomens. Of course, we can gain weight anywhere on our bodies, but these tend to be the first places people put on weight--something that's worth keeping in mind when you're considering where to have a new tattoo placed.
Many women think it's sexy to have tattoos placed on their breasts and hips, which is fine unless those tend to be trouble spots for you whenever you put on a few pounds. Anywhere in the abdominal area is iffy for women who are considering having children someday, since your stomach will inevitably expand during pregnancy. What are some of the safer spots for a woman to get a tattoo? The neck, collarbone area, upper-center chest, forearms, fingers, back, calves, ankles, and feet are the areas least likely to get stretched out if you gain weight. Granted, if you're a professional, some of those areas may not be options for you. That said, it's worth giving strong consideration to these areas if you want to reduce the likelihood of your tattoo stretching in an unappealing way should you gain weight later on in life.
For men, the neck, forearms, hands, chest, back, legs, and feet are all relatively safe areas in terms of avoiding having your tattoo stretch in an unpleasant way if you gain weight later in life. These aren't foolproof suggestions, though, since some men do gain weight in their legs while others bulk up significantly in their chests, arms and legs from weight-lifting, which can also cause a tattoo to stretch in an unnatural way.
One area that both men and women should consider avoiding is the underside of the upper arm. Aside from the fact that it's an incredibly painful place to get tattooed, the flesh under your arm can get flabby with age. If you get tattooed there and end up with floppy underarms later, you'll probably wish you'd picked a different spot to get tattooed.
Finally, keep in mind that tattoos wear more quickly wherever there's regular friction. In other words, avoid getting tattoos in between your fingers and toes, in the crooks of your elbows, under your armpits, behind your knees, and in between your thighs. Regardless of age, these are difficult spots to maintain sharp-looking tattoos. You'll have to go back for repeated touch-ups before your tattoo fully heals and you'll be stuck with frequent maintenance throughout the life of your tattoo if you opt for any of these areas as opposed to other places on your body.
There are a wide variety of tattoo ink brands available, ranging from downright cheap (in terms of cost and quality) to top-of-the-line inks. In our article, Top Brands in the Golden Age of Tattoo Inks, we list the top 14 tattoo ink brands on the market today. The article contains a synopsis about each brand and what it has to offer, so you can read up and see if you'd prefer to ask your artist to work with a particular tattoo ink brand. Keep in mind that tattoo artists tend to be particular about the type of tattoo ink they use, because they're used to the way their preferred brand goes into the skin, blends, and heals. If your artist tells you s/he uses a tattoo ink brand not on our list, read up on it and see how you feel about it. You can even post in our forum to get other community members' opinions about their personal experiences with your artist's preferred brand of ink. If you feel strongly about having your artist use one of the top brands, like Intenze tattoo ink or Eternal Ink, talk to him or her about it. S/he may need some time, and possibly a little extra financial incentive, to get comfortable with an unfamiliar brand of tattoo ink and purchase the assortment of colors needed to do your tattoo.
Maintaining Tattooed Skin
Developing wrinkles is an inevitable part of aging, but that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to minimize wrinkles around your tattoo. During the early days after getting a tattoo, it's incredibly important to practice good tattoo aftercare, which means keeping your skin clean and moisturized with a proper tattoo aftercare product like Tattoo Goo, Aquaphor, Hustle Butter, or After Inked. You can continue using one of these moisturizing creams indefinitely, to lock in color, nourish your skin, and protect your tattoo on an ongoing basis. Later, you might also look into using a higher-end anti-wrinkle cream on a daily basis to minimize development of wrinkles around your tattoo. The tauter and smoother your tattooed skin stays, the better your design will hold over time.
You may be able to stave off aging for years, but sooner or later, your skin will start to look its age. Don't let that get you down! Remember that your tattoos are a snapshot of your past, infused with memories and moments. Whether or not your tattoos become wrinkled, stretch or sag slightly with age, they'll always have special meaning for you, and that's all that matters. As you age, your tattoos will become like the patina on an antique, adding value and character even when they're no longer "shiny and new".
Dealing With Hopeless Old Tattoos
As you age, you may hit a point where some of your tattoos are more of an eyesore than the art you intended them to be for life. Granted, if you take good care of your skin and get your ink touched up from time to time, you hopefully won't have to worry about your tattoo degrading to the point where you no longer love it. However, if you do reach a point where your tattoo just isn't up to snuff anymore, you're not stuck with it looking like an indefinable blob forever. You have two choices in this instance: Get a great cover-up tattoo, or have laser tattoo removal.
The secret to getting a great cover-up tattoo is to find a reputable tattoo artist who specializes in cover-up tattoos and work with him or her on a design that will completely mask your old, faded, and/or distorted tattoo. Typically, the more intricate the design, the more successful the cover-up tattoo will be, because lots of fine detail is great camouflage for an old tattoo. Your cover-up will also need to be larger than your existing tattoo and placed in such a way that it completely covers your old tattoo and overlays the most detailed parts over the spots where the most camouflage is needed. Bold, rich colors, like forest green, deep blue, royal purple, ruby red, and other jewel tones tend to make the best color palette for cover-up tattoos, but your artist will be able to guide you best on that after evaluating the tattoo being covered up.
Laser Tattoo Removal
As laser technology continues to improve, so does the efficacy of laser tattoo removal. At The Studio at Painful Pleasures, we've performed thousands of laser tattoo removal treatments with great results. The number of sessions it takes to fully remove a tattoo varies from person to person, depending on factors like the age of a tattoo, whether or not it was professionally done, how close the tattoo is to the heart (tattoos on extremities tend to take longer than those on the core of the body), and the colors involved, among other things. Although there is slight risk of hyper-pigmentation or hypo-pigmentation (darkening or lightening of skin), the risk is minimal as long as the physician takes a slow, methodical approach to treatments, starting out with low laser settings and intensifying them incrementally after seeing how your skin responds to treatment.
On average, many tattoos can be completely removed within 8-12 treatments. Since you have to wait 6 weeks in between sessions to allow your body to break up and dispose of the ink and for your skin to heal, laser tattoo removal requires patience and a big investment of time. The treatments themselves may be over in a minute or less, depending on the size of your tattoo, but you'll have to have one every 6 weeks or so and keep coming back regularly until you see the results you desire.
Note: During laser tattoo removal treatments, we highly recommend regularly applying a balm like Laser Aftercare to the healing skin around the tattoo you're having lasered. It's chock full of vitamin E, which is a super healer, as well as other natural, nourishing plant extracts.
The Facts of Life
Unfortunately, there's no way to know with certainty exactly how your tattoos will look 20, 30 or 40+ years from now. That said, they could end up looking a whole lot worse if you don't take the precautions outlined here to heart. By having an experienced professional tattoo artist do your tattoos with quality inks on body parts that are less likely to be stretched by weight gain, practicing religious tattoo aftercare during the healing process, maintaining your skin with appropriate cleansers and nourishing creams over time, protecting your tattoos from sun damage, and having them touched up from time-to-time, the chances are good that your tattoos will continue to look awesome as you age. Be as attentive to your tattoos as you are to your general health, and they'll age as well as the rest of your body. It's just a fact of life--always take good care of yourself, and you'll reap the rewards of good health and tattoos that look bad-ass well into your golden years!
For additional reading on the subject of tattoos and aging, check out our blog post titled What Will Your Tattoos Look Like When You're Old?