What Happens To Tattoos Over Time?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 9, 2020
    Last Updated: November 10, 2020

One of the biggest arguments against getting a tattoo has always been, “Think about what your tattoo will look like when you get older.” While it’s not enough to deter many people, others are more hesitant to get tattooed for fear of what will happen to their ink as they age.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens to tattoos over time, you’re not alone. Let’s find out.


How Skin Ages

As skin ages, the number of skin cell layers remains the same, but the outer layer of the skin — the epidermis — thins out. Visible signs of aging include wrinkles, loss of color in the skin as the number of melanocytes (our pigmented cells) decrease, sagging, and loose skin. Fortunately, these changes tend to occur gradually, which helps prevent rapid tattoo distortion.

Your skin’s ability to produce collagen and elastin decreases with age. Combined with gravity’s constant pull, this leads to wrinkles and sagging, crepey skin. Sweat and oil gland function also begins to diminish over time, which also contributes to dryness and decreased skin quality. 

However, there are many contributing factors that can speed up the aging process. Excessive alcohol consumption, prolonged sun exposure, and smoking have all been proven to cause premature aging, which will change the look of your tattoo as well as your skin.

How Tattoos Change Over Time

Your tattoo is part of your skin, and as your skin begins to wrinkle and sag, your tattoo will gradually change along with your skin. There’s no way to prevent the gradual decline of your skin’s elasticity, but taking good care of your skin will help keep it in good condition, so your tattoo looks fresher longer. 

Our bodies also change with age. Some people gain weight, while others lose it. While rapid changes can lead to saggy skin and stretch marks, weight gain, weight loss, and changes in muscle tone won’t dramatically affect your tattoo. Changes in your weight impact smaller, more intricate designs more than it does bold tattoos, so you may see some distortion in the finer details. 

Even bodybuilders and athletes are unlikely to see major changes in their tattoos if the lines are bold and clear, so don’t worry about your fitness goals drastically affecting your designs. Detailed tattoos may lose their crispness and blur around the edges, but that’s part of the natural aging process with intricate needlework.

However, as time goes on and years turn into decades, a tattoo will continue to blur more and fade more. Tattoos that are many decades old can really begin to show their age as life affects them just as it affects us.

Still, there’s no need to worry. Tattoos can still look awesome as they age gracefully. They’ll definitely show the grandchildren that you’ve had a fun time throughout life.

Luckily, recent advances in tattoo inks mean that tattoos created now will fare much better as we age. How much better? Who knows. We haven’t seen what they’ll look like after 30, 40 or 50 years yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In order to minimize these changes, stick to healthy, achievable lifestyle changes. Gaining or losing weight gradually is easier to maintain, and it’s healthier for your skin. By allowing your skin to catch up to these changes with natural collagen and elastin production, you’ll reduce the risk of stretch marks, sagging skin, and changed tattoo designs.  

How to Keep Your Tattoo Fresh

Aging skin, sun exposure, and dietary changes will have a slow, gradual impact on your tattoo over time, but there are a few things you can do to ensure your tattoo looks its best as long as possible. Here are a few simple ways you can look after your tattoo. 

Tattoo Aftercare

One of the best ways to ensure your tattoo ages well is looking after it when it’s fresh. Think of it this way; your skin is injured when you get a tattoo, and injuries need proper care in order to heal properly. Following your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions will give your skin the time it needs to heal. 

Aftercare instructions may vary slightly from artist to artist, but they generally follow the same outline. Clean the tattoo at least twice-daily with a gentle soap and lukewarm water – pat dry with a clean paper towel – apply a lotion to aid healing.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan-friendly 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.

Always Wear SPF

The most important anti-aging ingredient is sunscreen. The sun’s rays do more than cause sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. Sun exposure can also fade your tattoo drastically. Brightly colored tattoos fade faster than blackwork, but harmful UVA and UVB rays can fade even the darkest tattoo.

Keep fresh tattoos shielded from the sun with clothing or a bandage until they heal, and make sure you cover them with an SPF of 30 or higher before going out in the sun once healing is complete. 

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.

Keep Your Skin Moisturized

As skin ages, it loses its ability to produce its own moisture. You can improve the quality of your skin — and your tattoo — by applying moisturizer every day. This is especially important if you live in a cold, dry climate, but everyone needs a moisturizer. 

You can opt for products with additional benefits like collagen and vitamin E, but any moisturizer will keep your tattoo hydrated and your skin plump and healthy. For extra longevity, apply your moisturizer fresh out of the shower while your skin is still damp. This helps your skin absorb nourishing ingredients faster and seals in hydration. 

Choose the Right Design

While delicate, intricate pieces are stunning, they’re also the most likely to fade over time. If you want tattoos that are less likely to blur into an unrecognizable blob, choose designs with bolder lines. Your artist can incorporate negative space to create a detailed design without cramming too much ink into a confined area, which makes it more likely to blur. 

Darker pigments also last longer than pale watercolors, so choose your tattoo colors accordingly. Wearing proper sun protection or keeping your tattoos covered with clothing will help them last longer, but you should be aware that light and bright colors do fade sooner. 

Placement Matters

Tattoos on flat areas of the body are less likely to be affected by sagging and wrinkles. Opt for tattoos on the upper thigh, back, shoulders, and the underside of the forearm. They’re less exposed to sunlight and friction, which also helps lines stay sharp and vibrant for longer. 

Elbows, knees, hands, and feet see a lot of wear and tear, so tattoos in those spots are much more likely to fade over time. Sure, you can always get a touch-up, but if you want your tattoos to last, you may want to avoid those areas in general. 

Conclusion

Nothing can stop the passage of time, but there are a few ways you can help slow it down. To keep your tattoo looking its best, you should follow your artist’s aftercare instructions, avoid sun exposure, take care of your skin, and consider your tattoo’s lines and placement before you get inked.