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Tattoo Colour Changes

Why do tattoo pigments fade or change colour and why do technicians sometimes get unexpected effects or colour outcomes after cosmetic tattooing?

Factors Related to the Methods and Techniques of the Tattooist

Needle Depth - needle depth can have a significant effect on the surface appearance of a cosmetic tattoo, pigment depth will affect both the apparent size and colour of the pigment. This is due to the unique spectral characteristics of human skin, blue light does not tend to penetrate very deeply into the skin, red light penetrates more deeply but has more scatter and progressively less reflectance within the dermis.

If the pigment is not implanted at the correct depth within the dermis then Black/Brown pigments may tend to appear Blue/Green/Grey because of depth related changes to red light reflectance, similar effects are seen with pigmentary disorders such as Post Inflammatory Hyper Pigmentation (PIH), and Melasma where melanin can appear to be Black/Brown/Blue/Grey depending on the depth of the melanin deposit within the skin. All pigment colours may be altered in appearance if incorrect implantation depth is used due to the Depth: Colour/Size effect.

Type of Tattoo Equipment Used - An important point with regards to choice of equipment is that depth related colour change may be more obvious with high precision digital tattoo machines than with lower precision equipment, this is because low precision equipment will tend to implant pigment at constantly varying depths within the skin which may tend to mask incorrect implantation depth settings by the technician. In contrast high precision equipment will tend to consistently implant pigment at exactly the depth settings that were selected and if the depth setting was incorrect then depth related pigment colour change may occur.

Needle Angle - There is a trend towards using slope needles (which are intended to be used at a 45° angle) and some other needles such as 4 flat are sometimes used the same angle. Part of the rationale for using needles on a 45° narrow angle is that if pigment is implanted with the needle close to vertical position e.g. between 80-90° then pigment will tend to be squeezed back out of the skin penetration opening as the needle retracts from the skin, but if the needle enters on an 45° angle then more pigment may tend to be retained due to tighter closing of the skin opening as a result of the angle of needle insertion.

Needle configuration - The choice of needle configuration can have profound effect on the final healed colour of a tattoo, for example tightly grouped needles such as power needles will tend to implant pigment at a higher density which will concentrate the pigment colour in the skin (higher pigment/skin saturation). More loosely grouped needles such as rounds or shaders will not implant pigment at quite the same density therefore the final healed colour may seem less intense and more of the natural skin colour may be visible within the final healed colour altering the hue of the tattoo.

The correct choice of needle configuration is essential to achieve the required colour and effect outcome. Needle Passes - Intuitively the more passes over the skin the more pigment is likely to be implanted, however excessive passes will increases trauma and bleeding which can push pigment out of the skin, or even worse it can cause pigment migration which affects the final colour as well as causing an undesirable appearance.

Pigment Density (pigment/skin saturation) - As mentioned above the choice of needle type, the number of passes over the skin, and the total number of treatments applied will all affect the density of the pigment within the skin and the final healed colour. Both the technician and the client need to be aware that pigment density will affect the hue of the tattoo not only because of relative concentration of the pigment colour as the density increases but also because increasing pigment density reduces the combined affect that the natural skin colour has on the final healed colour of the tattoo. The exception to this is skin tones with high levels of melanin which may have an overpowering effect on the final healed colour of the tattoo regardless of pigment density.

Pigment Mixing - Those who have had any formal education in the art of painting will be aware of the term creating a 'mud mix' or creating 'muddy colours' this is a situation that occurs due to over mixing of paint colours, the more mixing of colours that you do the muddier the colour tends to become resulting in a dull hue that is much closer to a greyish: brown/blue/green/red than the individual component colours that you began with.

Most cosmetic tattooists seem to use the paint artists intuitive colour model of Red, Yellow, Blue, (RYB), the difference being that the paint artists have the luxury of starting with paint colours that are very close to their very vibrant primaries Red, Yellow, Blue. Cosmetic Tattooist do not have the luxury of starting with pigment colours that close to the RYB primaries most of our pigment colours are already secondary or more likely tertiary colour mixtures.