A tattoo is a unique expression that literally becomes a part of you once you get it. Getting a tattoo involves inserting pigments into your skin’s top layers. But over time, these layers shed off, leaving your tattoo less vivid.

You can get a burn on a tattoo in all the same ways you’d get a burn on nontattooed skin. Most burns happen at home when you touch or get too close to something that’s hot or on fire.

You could also get a burn on your tattoo during medical procedures. In rare cases, tattoos can swell or burn during MRI exams.

Burns on tattoos have also been reported during laser hair removal procedures.

More commonly, you can get a sunburn on your tattoo if you don’t use adequate sun protection.

Burns are less likely to be super painful or cause damage if the tattoo is old compared to when it’s new. Fresh tattoos are open wounds, so they will hurt more and are more sensitive to damage from a severe burn.

Tattoos take as long as 6 months to fully heal, though the outer layers of skin may heal in 2 to 3 weeks. Your tattoo is more vulnerable to damage when it’s healing.

Depending on their severity, burns are classified as one of three types:

  • First degree burns cause redness and swelling.
  • Second degree burns cause blistering and permanent skin damage.
  • Third degree burns cause skin to thicken and take on a white and leathery appearance.

If you get a burn on your tattoo

When you get a mild burn on your tattoo, you may notice your tattoo seems brighter in the affected area. It may look like the tattoo is new, appearing vibrant in the patch of reddened skin.

Soon after, though, the burned area on your tattoo may begin swelling or scabbing. This means it’s healing. Your tattoo should look fairly normal but might be a little faded once it’s healed again.

When you get a more severe burn, it may pass through all the layers of skin that contain your tattoo. This can permanently damage the appearance of your tattoo, leaving certain parts without any ink.

Again, a new tattoo is more likely to react adversely to a burn than an old tattoo.

If you get a sunburn on your tattoo

When you get a sunburn on your tattoo, you might notice swelling and redness. It may also peel and blister as the sunburned layers of skin shed. This means that getting sunburned can quickly dull your tattoo.

Getting a burn on your tattoo will probably negatively affect its appearance in some way. But treating a burned tattoo is the best way to minimize the damage.

For a mild burn on your tattoo

If you have a mildly burned tattoo, treat it like you’d treat a mild burn on any other part of your skin. Here’s what to do:

  1. Right after the burn happens, run cool, but not cold, water over the affected area. You can also apply a cool, wet compress for several minutes until it feels less painful. Avoid using ice.
  2. Remove any jewelry or clothing that might irritate the affected area.
  3. Avoid popping any blisters that may form.
  4. Apply a thin layer of unscented lotion or healing ointment once the burn feels cool.
  5. Loosely wrap a sterile gauze bandage over the burn.
  6. Take a pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen sodium (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  7. Consider getting a tetanus shot, especially if you haven’t had one in the past 10 years.

These burns should heal in a few weeks.

For a severe burn on your tattoo

Perform first aid while contacting emergency help right away if you experience any of the following:

  • a severe burn on your hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks, joints, or large parts of the body
  • deep burns
  • skin that looks leathery after being burned
  • skin that looks charred, brown, or white after being burned
  • a burn that was caused by chemicals or electricity
  • trouble breathing or burns in your airway

Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • signs of infection, such as pus, increased pain, swelling, and redness
  • a burn or blister that doesn’t heal in 2 weeks, especially if it’s large
  • generally feeling unwell after being burned
  • excessive scarring

For a sunburned tattoo

Treat sunburned tattoos like you’d treat sunburned skin with no tattoos:

  • Hop into a cool shower or run cool water over the sunburned area to reduce pain and swelling. Pat yourself dry without rubbing your skin.
  • Moisten your sunburned skin with aloe vera or soy lotions, or apply a thin layer hydrocortisone cream if the sunburn is especially painful.
  • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce redness, swelling, and pain.
  • Drink more water, since a sunburn can cause dehydration.
  • Avoid popping any blisters, as they’re helping your skin heal.
  • Protect your sunburned skin from further damage by covering it with loose clothing made of tightly woven fabric.
  • After your sunburn has healed, be sure to always use sun protection like sunblock and clothing to cover all of your skin, including the parts that are tattooed. Doing so will prevent sun damage and keep your tattoo looking its best.

A sunburned tattoo will heal in about 2 weeks.

Mild burns and sunburns may dull the appearance of your tattoo once they fade. That’s because you’ll lose some layers of pigmented skin from the burn.

More severe burns may cause a complete loss of pigment and possibly scarring over the burned tattooed area, which may already have some scarring from the tattooing process.

Because tattoos dull or disappear completely when they’re burned, some people might think burning is a cheap and easy way to get rid of an unwanted tattoo.

Don’t attempt to do this. Burning your own skin is extremely dangerous and puts you at risk for infection, scarring, and disfigurement.

You should be very cautious when considering any procedure that involves burning your skin.

Branding has become a popular form of body modification, but it’s quite dangerous. Never attempt to do this on your own or with friends. Find a licensed professional and research the risks beforehand.

If you have a burned tattoo and don’t like its appearance, you can talk to a professional to learn about your options.

Getting a burned tattoo removed

If you’d prefer the damaged tattoo be removed completely, contact your doctor. They can recommend tattoo removal treatment. This treatment might involve:

  • lasers
  • dermabrasion
  • chemical peels
  • surgical removal

Getting a burned tattoo repaired

If you want to repair your damaged tattoo, contact a tattoo artist. You may want to find the artist who did your original tattoo, if possible. This will ensure you get the best possible result.

Explain what happened, and make sure they’re comfortable tattooing on damaged skin. They will likely ask how long it’s been since you burned your skin. Wait until it’s completely healed before getting your tattoo repaired.

Tattooed skin burns just like skin that’s not tattooed. Mild burns and sunburns will cause some damage to the very top layers of your skin.

Luckily, these burns can be treated at home. However, they may dull the appearance of your tattoo.

More severe burns can cause fading, infections, or permanent scarring.

There are several ways to remove or repair your tattoo if you’re unhappy with its appearance after a burn. Contact a professional for advice and to set up a treatment plan. Never attempt to burn your own skin.