The Sun, Your Skin, And Your Tattoos
Pretty much any good tattoo artist will tell you to keep the sun off your ink. Most will explain that this is because the sun damages your skin; some will say that the sun breaks down pigment.
But what’s really happening here?
[NPR reports] and I try to break it down.
Let’s start with the basics: how does all that tattoo ink stay in? (Or, really, how does skin work?)
Skin cells have to stick together to keep your insides in and bend with your body as you move. Skin has to be permeable enough for you to sweat but impenetrable to noxious chemicals, bacteria and viruses. The skin’s top layer — the stratum corneum — is just 15 microns thick (about half that of wax paper) and is your first line of protection against the outside world.
Keeps the bad stuff out, the good stuff in. Skin is awesome. If you take a look at the diagram below, you can see how the ink get nestled right under the skin (aka the epidermis) and from the description above, why it stays there.
Now here’s the news. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, some biomechanics scientists began playing around with UV rays and some skin cells. Here’s what they found:
“UV radiation really is a double whammy,” says Dauskardt. “On one hand you’re making skin weaker and easier to break, and on the other hand you’re actually increasing the stresses in the skin so there’s more stress available to cause it to break.”
Picture a trampoline. If it stretches too far, it snaps. Now picture a really old trampoline that is not only cracking, but it again stretched too far. That’s your skin, and UV is both the weather that aged the trampoline, and the elephant that sat on it.
Now what happens if that trampoline “skin” is the only thing standing between your tattoo and the outside world? Those cracks get pretty scary pretty fast.
(I can’t believe I actually found a gif of this. Fucking Tumblr.)
At the microscopic level, UV radiation changes the structures of integral proteins, namely keratin, and fat molecules called lipids that serve as the glue that holds skin cells together. These lipids become less cohesive. So, even in deeper skin layers, the cells just don’t stick together as well.
This research suggests that it’s not actually the sun breaking down the tattoo ink: but rather, the UV rays of the sun breaking down the skin which stops being able to protect the tattoos. Science!
So how do we stop it?, asked everyone.
Can goops and lotions help? Maybe. Most moisturizing products would help prevent the skin from drying out, Dauskardt says, but “depending on what moisturizing product you use, it potentially could even be damaging because it could aid in the absorption of UV light rather than blocking it.”
Your best bet is sunscreen. Dauskardt’s group has found in preliminary tests that most sunscreens block the physical damage. “What we’re trying to figure out now is whether some sunscreens and some molecules or nanoparticles that are typically used in sunscreens are more effective than others,” he says.
Do you need me to repeat that for you? SUNSCREEN. PUT SUNSCREEN ON. And as always, the best sun block is to block the sun: whether that’s chillin’ in the shade or grabbing some protective clothing.
Because really. If there’s anyone who can make protective clothing look cool, it’s tattooed guys in collared shirts. It’s a win win.