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Protecting Your Body's Art

While summer seems ideal for showing off that sexy new belly ring or the cool tribal ink on your back, take heed. Tattoos and piercings are not as summer-friendly as you may be. They need special care when exposed to sun and water. Dermatologists, tattoo artists and piercers agree that, for a new tattoo or piercing, it's best to avoid the ocean, pool and rays altogether during that initial healing period. That's when your body art is most susceptible to infection. Tattoos heal in around six weeks, while the healing times for piercings vary from six weeks to six months or more, depending on the location of the piercing. Nipple and navel rings heal in about six months; noses and eyebrows take two to six months, while some genital adornments can take up to a year to heal. Labia and scrotal a piercings heal more quickly than the more invasive, through-the-shaft Ampallang. All piercings take up to two full years to heal completely.

Sunset Strip tattoo artist Mike Messina says that a new tattoo shouldn't be submerged in water of any kind during the first four to six weeks. It's okay to gently wash the tattoo while in the shower, but prolonged exposure to water interrupts healing, removes the scab prematurely and can fade the tattoo's color. A tattoo is an open cut and therefore at risk of becoming infected if exposed to bacteria in ocean, lake or pool water.

Sun can also present problems for a new tattoo, as the open skin burns more easily. The sun's burning rays can diminish the brilliance of your tattoo's color and age the tattoo just as it ages your skin. As the skin beneath the ink becomes darker, the colors above look less bright. The sun causes lines that were once sharp to look more blurred and fuzzy. Color tattoos appear to fade more quickly than black ones, but they actually fade at the same rate, and both need protection. Messina recommends a strong, waterproof sunscreen applied directly to the tattoo. "The tattoo is only as good as the skin beneath it," he says.

Stuart H. Kaplan, M.D., is a tattoo-and-piercing-friendly dermatologist who practices in Beverly Hills. He suggests protecting exposed tattoos with clothing if possible and always, always using sunscreen. "Risks of excessive sun exposure can include blisters and poor healing," Kaplan says.

New piercings need even more protection from sun and water. Gauntlet manager Neema Enriquez suggests diligent care to heal them properly. Clean twice daily, and keep out of sun and water during healing.

If you plan on lying out and tanning, it's best to cover that belly ring with sun-protective clothing or swimwear for at least the first six months after piercing. Sun heats the jewelry and can burn the inside of the piercing, potentially irritating the surrounding skin. Enriquez advises against tanning salons and sunscreens: "Sunscreens can clog the piercing," she says. A hat is the best way to protect facial piercings.

Water can be even more dangerous than the sun. Any body of water (other than your bathtub) presents the risk of infection for new piercees. Overchlorinated water can itself burn tender, newly pierced skin. More significant, though, is that pools, Jacuzzis, and ocean and lake water are hosts for all types of bacteria that can lead to infection, causing poor healing, scarring or, in extreme cases, the removal of semi-permanent jewelry. Kaplan says, "A piercing creates a tunnel through the skin which, if not kept clean, is a place where bacteria can collect." According to Kaplan, complications are rare and most infections respond well to antibiotics. If going into the water is unavoidable during the initial healing of a nipple or navel piercing, Enriquez suggests using a Tagaderm patch. This waterproof, breathable, hospital-grade adhesive is designed to use once and offers some protection from water-borne bacteria. Still, staying out of the water is the best protection. Kick back beneath a palm tree - it's shady, safe and sexy.