Tattoo Sunburn: Treatment & Prevention

  • Written By Dan Hunter on May 12, 2018
    Last Updated: May 17, 2023

Every time the hot weather arrives, hoards of tattooed humans flock outside for trips to the beach and various outdoor events.

What many of these people don’t realize is that the sun is incredibly dangerous to their precious tattoos, and not only can sunburn cause pain and unsightly short-term damage, but frequent sunburn over a period of years can completely destroy the look of their once-perfect ink.

Sunburn On A New Tattoo

When your tattoo is brand new, it’s extremely vulnerable as it is essentially a large open wound with some ink in it. Since wounds are exposed to the elements without much protection compared to healthy skin, they are more prone to damage if they’re not protected properly.

Exposing a fresh tattoo to strong, direct sunlight is an incredibly bad idea, as the sun will burn and damage an open wound very quickly. This is one of the major downsides of getting a tattoo in the summer.

Below are a few things that could happen if your new tattoo gets sunburnt:

Delayed Healing

If your tattoo gets damaged in any way while it’s still trying to heal, healing times are only going to increase further.


If the sunburn is especially severe, it could cause the tattoo to swell and blister, potentially causing permanent damage to the area (not to mention an increased risk of skin cancer further down the line).

Appearance Issues

Sunburn on a tattoo can cause the ink to fade and become patchy in areas, meaning you’ll likely need to go back to your artist for a touch-up at some point. When sunburns heal, dead layers peel off prematurely and will take some of your precious ink with it, also.

On top of this, if your artist believes your carelessness was a contributing factor to the damage sustained to your tattoo, they may even decide to charge you a fee for the touch-up.

Extremely light tattoos, such as ones created primarily using white ink, are particularly vulnerable to strong, intense sunlight, and will fade much quicker than darker tattoos.


Sunburn can irritate the delicate, healing skin cells which surround the area, potentially causing them to itch, burn, and rash.


Sunburn can cause your wound to open up and decrease its ability to fight bacteria, in-turn increasing the chances of contracting an infection. If left untreated, these infections can cause lasting damage to your tattoo.

Sunburn On An Old Tattoo

While getting sunburn on a new tattoo will be much more damaging than getting sunburn on an older tattoo, it doesn’t mean that lasting damage can’t potentially still be done.

Naturally, your skin cells die and shed every day all over your body, but when exposed to intense sunlight and harsh UV rays, your skin cells will break down much faster, which is why people with sunburn usually peel a lot more than normal.

As sunburn causes apoptosis, or cell death, this results in your skin to peel much quicker and more vigorously.  This damage and resultant peeling increase the rate at which your tattoo will fade due to small ink particles being peeled away each time this process occurs.

The sun can do a lot of damage to your tattoo over the years

Not only this, but because sunlight is absorbed better by darker colors, the ink in your tattoo (especially if it’s black/gray) will attract the sunlight more, causing your tattoo to burn at a faster rate than other areas of non-tattooed skin.

What To Do If You Get Sunburn On A Tattoo

If you realize you’ve been burnt around your tattoo, you’ll want to make sure you get out of the sun as quickly as possible.

Once out of the sun, attempt to cool your skin down by having a cold bath or shower, or by compressing the area with a cold, wet towel.

If your tattoo is new, have a quick shower instead of a bath to prevent the risk of the bathwater infecting the wound.

If you decide to compress your new tattoo with a cloth, make sure it’s completely clean and free from bacteria, and don’t leave it on the tattoo for longer than a couple of minutes to ensure the water doesn’t saturate and disrupt the settling ink.

Once the tattooed skin has cooled down, try to moisturize the area by using products containing soothing properties. If your tattoo is new, be sure to use a moisturizing lotion that doesn’t contain any artificial colors or scents, as these ingredients can cause further irritation around the area.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really well hydrated but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.​ Click here to buy from Amazon.

Try to rehydrate your skin further by drinking plenty of fluids (plain water is best).

To reduce any pain or inflammation, take ibuprofen or other suitable painkillers (not all will reduce inflammation, though). Unfortunately, UV damage can take 5 hours to show up, so if you notice a burn while you are outside, expect it to get much worse that night.  Prevention is recommended.

If your sunburn is severe and has caused large blisters, or any systemic symptoms such as dizziness or fever, contact a medical professional as soon as possible.

How To Avoid Getting Sunburn On Your New Tattoo

If you have a new tattoo, you should stay out of direct sunlight until the area has completely healed, which is when your skin has finished scabbing and peeling (which usually takes 2-3 weeks).

While your tattoo is still healing, you should refrain from using any sun tanning or sunscreen products on the area, as these usually contain chemicals/ingredients that can be harsh to a new tattoo and can cause them to become irritated, and can even cause fading of the ink.

If your tattoo has already healed and you wish to go outside without risking sunburn, you should apply a generous layer of (at least) SPF 30 sunscreen to the area, and reapply whenever you feel the effects wearing off.

My favorite and most recommended sunscreen for using on tattoos is EltaMD UV Sport Sunscreen Lotion.

This broad-spectrum sunscreen has all of the attributes required for not only protecting your tattoo amazingly well, but also for helping to keep it bright and vibrant. It’s suitably strong at SPF 50 and is water and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

Most importantly, EltaMD is extremely tattoo-friendly and doesn’t contain any fragrances, oils, or parabens.

Remember, UV rays from the sun can penetrate even thick cloud cover and glass in your car or office, so remain vigilant and apply sunscreen and wear protective clothing in the summer even when you can’t see the sun directly.

If you go outside in strong sunlight and forget to apply sunscreen, try your best to stay in the shade as much as possible.

Finally, it’s worth noting that being in the water can increase your chances of getting burnt due to the sun’s rays reflecting off the surface and back onto your skin, doubling the amount of exposure you’ll potentially be receiving. Make sure you apply sunscreen frequently if you’re going in and out of water often or wear a rashguard. If your tattoo is less than 3 weeks old, you should be staying out of the water completely.

Sunbeds & New Tattoos

Be aware that tanning beds are just as harmful to your skin and tattoos as the sun is. Tanning beds still use high doses of UV light to damage your skin in order to tan it, and therefore you should think carefully before getting into a sunbed if you want your tattoo to remain looking fresh and healthy for as long as possible. 


Sunburn on a tattoo should be avoided as much as possible. If your tattoo gets burnt, react as quickly as you can to try and cool the area down. The best time to get a tattoo would be during the colder months where the outdoor elements are much less of a risk.

By following the advice in this article, you should now know what to do in order to actively protect your tattoo from being burnt, which in turn should ensure your tattoo remains looking great for years to come.

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