How to stop tattoos fading in the sun

It's like one of those dreams where your teeth start crumbling, or you're back at school, only naked.

You've dropped big bucks on a great tattoo. It's your pride and joy. . But you're at the beach this summer and beneath the sun's harsh glare, the ink starts to fade away. Before long, it's all but gone.

When it's fresh you think it will last forever, but body art fades and our hot Aussie sun can speed up the disappearing act.

Of course, you'll be wearing some sunscreen, because you're not a mug. But did you know there's such a product as sunscreen that purports to protect your precious ink?

It's pretty obvious as you glance around at your fellow man that the Aussie tattoo industry is booming. Everybody, it seems, has one, wants one, or wants more. A recent report from industry monitor IBISWorld found that "technological advances" (ie. quicker and less painful application) and a rise in social acceptance will see the sector grow by 4 per cent each year to 2020.

In the 18-to-25 age group, more than one in three Australians have at least one tattoo, IBISWorld found. That figure rises to about 40 per cent for the 26-to-40 age bracket. Over the past five years, the market has grown by 20 per cent.

Tat for tatts

With so much interest, and money, around tattoos it was only a matter of time before the beauty industry started selling products targeting the well-inked.

First cab off the rank is the iconic underarm warrior Brut, which has come up with a range of products under the Brut Tattoo range that promise to "offer the right protection and care to Aussie men and their ink".

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Brut's Tattoo Guard is a factor 50 sunscreen with added aloe vera and Vitamin E. Brut claims it will help keep the skin hydrated to ensure "tattoos look fresh and bright" and prevent "fading and blurring from the sun".

Sydney tattoo artist Joe Kintz designed the packaging and thinks it's a great idea. "Tattoos are an investment," he says. "To maintain colour, vibrancy and details, they need to be looked after from the moment they are created."

Does it work? I spoke to dermal clinician Sally Risby, who explained that the sun acts in much the same way as the latest tattoo-removal systems.

"Tattoo ink particles stay in the skin because they are too big for the lymphatic system to engulf," says Risby, who works at Melbourne's Flawless Rejuvenation Skin Clinic.

"Lasers remove tattoos by going in and smashing the ink particles down so that they are small enough for the immune cells in the skin to deal with."

The sun can act in a similar way: "It's like plastic toys that are left out in the yard too long – the ink in your skin will react in the same way and will fade after prolonged sun exposure," Risby says.

Good side effects

She thinks special tattoo-targeted sunscreens are "a bit of a marketing thing", but agrees they might have some good side effects – getting young men in particular thinking about protecting their skin from the sun.

"They won't wear sunscreen for ageing reasons, and they seem deaf to the skin cancer message," she says.

"The best sun protection is long-sleeved clothing, but if you've got a 'sleeve' tattoo, you're unlikely to want to cover it up at the beach.   

"But if you've spent money on a tattoo and don't want it to fade then using some sunscreen, where otherwise you might not, is a good thing."

So a cautious thumbs-up from the experts. Risby also mentioned that heavy tattooing can make skin lesions harder to spot. So be warned. And be careful.

The best advice with tattoos and our hot sun is still the tried-and-true slip, slop, slap. It can help prolong your ink's life - and yours, too.

Have your tattoos faded? Do you do anything in particular to look after them?

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