The Skin Secrets Only Tattoo Artists Know
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THE SKIN SECRETS ONLY TATTOO ARTISTS KNOW
How to get the closest shave, which ingredients speed (and slow down) skin rejuvenation, and more lessons from these surprising skin care experts.
- Photography By
- ANNA PALMA
Dermatologists and estheticians may be the experts most people turn to for complexion advice, but their relationship with skin is, by its nature, clinical. Tattoo artists, on the other hand, tend to take a philosophical approach to the skin — one that lets them step back and see the big picture in ways that can be revealing. “Skin has a life of its own. It’s a canvas that’s constantly moving and breathing and changing,” says Los Angeles tattoo artist Brian Woo, who’s better known to clients like Hailey Bieber and Frank Ocean as Dr. Woo.
Virginia Elwood, a tattoo artist based in New York, agrees. “Being a tattoo artist, you just learn things about people. I can tell if someone is on certain medications, if they’ve been drinking recently, or if they’re dehydrated. The skin shows all of that.” It also evolves as you age. Elwood has one regular client, a landscaper, who has been coming to her for 15 years, and she says tattooing him now is a completely different experience than when they started working together. “He’s out in the sun, so he’s had long-term sun exposure, but it’s not just that his skin tone has changed — it’s the texture, the way it moves and feels,” she explains.
New York City-based artist Doreen Garner agrees the sun and age can change your skin, but the one thing she notices immediately is if a person moisturizes regularly. “If they do, their skin is more supple. It’s hard to explain but as soon as I put on a tattoo stencil, I know,” she says. “Even the ink goes in more easily.”
Does that mean people who moisturize more frequently have better skin? “I don’t want to use the term better,” Woo says with a diplomatic chuckle. “But you just know who has a regular regimen. Their skin isn’t as stretched, and it feels softer.” Here, all the skin care lessons tattoo artists have learned — and how you can benefit with or without the ink.
WHERE YOU LIVE AFFECTS YOUR SKIN
Every tattoo artist will tell you the sun is damaging, but you already knew that. What you may not realize is all the other environmental factors at play. Woo says he can tell if someone lives by the beach because it seems to dehydrate their skin. “They’re skin just feels dryer. I’m sure the sun is part of it, but it’s also the salt — there’s this quality you don’t see with someone who comes down from the mountains in Big Bear, where they’re further away from the ocean and pollution of L.A.,” he says. Wearing sunscreen can protect your skin no matter where you live, but opt for one with ingredients (like niacinamide) that help protect your skin’s barrier from all the elements.
THE SKIN NEEDS EXTRA CARE
The thinner your skin is, the more susceptible it is to scarring and damage, says Woo. Skin that’s gotten a lot of sun or is older can be thinner, he notes, but there are also particular areas on the body that are more delicate. “Neck skin is so fragile. It can feel kind of like parchment, especially as we age,” says Elwood. “It’s the same with the tops of the hands.” Many people focus their skin care regimens on their faces, but you’d be wise to treat your neck and the tops of hands to the same collagen-boosting ingredients (think: retinoids) typically reserved for facial products.
LESS IS MORE WHEN IT COMES TO FRAGRANCE
Every tattoo artist has her own suggestions for tattoo after-care, but there is one universal rule that everyone in the inked community seems to agree on: Avoid products with fragrance. “Chemical fragrances change the way the body heals,” explains Garner.
Woo, who likens freshly tattooed skin to sensitive skin, says people who are prone to rashes or allergies — regardless of whether or not they’ve ever gotten a tattoo — should peruse labels for added fragrance and avoid it wherever possible. “For people with sensitive skin — and I’m one of them — I would suggest eliminating anything with unnecessary ingredients like fragrance,” he says.
A CLOSE SHAVE IS ABOUT TECHNIQUE, NOT TOOLS
“I’m the best shaver in the world,” says Elwood. Tattoo artists have to be. Before they get to work, they have to disinfect skin and remove any hair as cleanly as possible, without causing irritation that could affect the tattooing process. The key is using lots of lubrication (Woo mixes a little Vaseline into the disinfecting soap he uses to prep) and making sure the razor stays in contact with the skin. “You can shave with a cheap Bic single blade and get amazing results if you never lift the razor,” says Elwood. “Just keep going back and forth, almost like you’re vacuuming.”
SKIN HEALS MORE SLOWLY THAN YOU REALIZE
The general rule of thumb in the tattoo world is that a tattoo heals in two weeks, but just because the skin looks like it has recovered, doesn’t mean it has. And that’s a lesson that goes for any type of skin blemish as well as dermatological treatments like peels, microneedling, and laser facials. Woo may not be familiar with those procedures, but he has tattooed areas where a client has had laser tattoo removal, and he says it takes at least a full month, possibly longer, for the skin to return to normal. Until then, “The skin is thin and fragile,” he explains. And while it’s in that state, you should lay off anything that could be irritating, including fragrance and active ingredients that can cause sensitivity.
MOISTURIZED SKIN PHOTOGRAPHS BETTER
All the makeup in the world can’t hide dehydration, so if you want to look good in a photo, amp up your moisturizing routine a few days before getting photographed. Tattoo artists know this because they often snap pictures of their work for their portfolios, and many of them have noticed how hydration makes all skin — not just the artwork — look better. “I equate it to when I’m doing a painting: When I finish, I put a varnish over everything to bring out the color,” says Woo. “Hydration makes everything look new, so the skin is glowing.”
DON'T SWEAT SMALL IMPERFECTIONS, BUT PAY ATTENTION TO CHANGES OVER TIME
You may never get a tattoo, but if you’re self-conscious about your skin or something you consider an imperfection, you should hang out with more tattoo artists. They can go on and on about skin and the stories it tells you. “I love the perfection that is imperfection,” says Woo.
Garner has just one caveat: Keep an eye on moles and spots that change significantly over time. “When I was training, we learned that tattoo artists can be a bridge to the physician, and I was taught what irregularities to look out for, like moles that could be problematic. So, I always keep an eye on things like that and recommend when someone needs to get checked out.” It’s good advice to follow — even if you never step foot in a tattoo shop.