Which Colors Work Best For Tattoos

John Dietrich

When investing in a tattoo, there are many factors to consider: the design, the placement and size, the style of tattoo art. But one crucial, yet often overlooked, factor is the color of your tattoo. First and foremost is the question, ‘Do I want a colored design?’ You might have assumed, going into the tattoo shop, that you’d get a pink floral design, only to discover that pink doesn’t show well on your skin. Alternatively, you might have wanted a large yellow tattoo, only to realize that yellow is one of the hardest pigments to get laser removed. Each shade reacts uniquely on different kinds of skin, and it’s important to weigh all the components involved in the mix. Here, we’ll explore the best pigments depending on your skin color, the versatility and longevity of the pigment, sun exposure, and your skin’s unique take to the ink. Read on, and learn about the best pigments for your skin!

The Science Behind the Skin

Although the two terms are easily conflated, skin tone (overtone) and undertone describe separate things. Your skin tone is the actual color of your skin. Examples of skin tone might include porcelain, olive, or caramel. Undertones, on the other hand, are warm, cool, or neutral. When you’re looking for a pigment to suit your skin, you want to match the ink color with your skin’s undertone.

There are 3 kinds of skin undertones: warm, cool, and neutral. Cool undertones describe those people with a blueish, pink, or ruddy complexion. These people tend to show blue colored veins. Warm undertones describe yellow, peachy, or golden complexions. Those with warm undertones typically have green colored veins. Neutral undertones show an even complexion, so the undertone aligns with your surface skin tone. These people have no distinguishable vein color.

Your skin is very complex, and there are many different factors that contribute to your unique color. Three biological chemicals determine your color: Hemoglobin, which is red; melanin, which is your skin’s sun protection agent and is brown or red-yellow; and carotene, which is orange-yellow. It turns out that the amount of melanin in your main skin layer determines your undertone. The less melanin you have, the more your veins will show as blue, and the cooler complexion you’ll have. The more melanin you have, the more your veins will show as green, and the warmer complexion you’ll have. The amount of hemoglobin and carotene you have determines the variation in your undertone.

So why should you match your tattoo ink with your skin undertone? It turns out that, just like your hemoglobin, your tattoo ink is covered by a layer of melanin. Your skin is made up of 3 layers, including the epidermis (top layer), the dermis (middle layer), and the subcutaneous fat layer (technically below the skin). The tattoo ink and the melanin sit in the dermis layer, but the melanin sits at the top of the layer, while the tattoo ink sits below it. This means that, if you only have small concentrations of melanin (a cool undertone), any ink pigment will show fairly well, but bold blues and reds will show especially well, since they match your natural skin undertone. If you have a higher concentration of melanin, the ink pigment will be affected by the color of the melanin–just as your veins are: recall that the blue color of your veins is turned green with the brown/red/yellow color of melanin. So, for an ink color that shows well, you’d want to stick to warmer pigments that match the amount of melanin in your skin complexion. It’s important to remember that there’s no difference in the way that darker skin receives color. Rather, it is the concentration of melanin which affects your skin’s undertone.

Other Factors to Consider

When picking shades, a good rule to remember is that shades lighter than your skin tone or shades significantly darker than your skin tone show best.

For those with fair-skin, red and violet pigments complement the skin well. Fair skin also takes white ink the best, since darker skin tones don’t allow white pigment to show as much.

Red Back Tattoo Design on A Woman
Photo: Pinterest

For those with medium or tanned skin, oranges, greens, and bright blues work well.

Lizard Tattoo Design
Photo: Tattoos Time

For darker skin tones, the darkest colors, like royal blue, crimson red, and black, work best. Lighter shades, such as light blue and white, don’t show up as well, whereas darker tattoo pigments bring out the color in the skin.

Tribal Tattoo Designs
Photo: Pinterest

The Versatility of the Pigment

Another factor that should be considered is the versatility of the colors: which colors will match your overall look? Usually, black, grey, and dark blues are the most versatile. We discussed the benefits of black and grey tattoos versus color tattoos in a previous post. If your design calls for color, muted shades will match with more outfits, if that’s your goal. If your tattoo is mostly hidden, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

How Long-Lasting is the Pigment

Knowing the longevity of your pigment is important for two main reasons: so that you know which tattoos you can get laser removed, if ever necessary, and so that you know which pigments will maintain integrity as time passes. Yellow, green, and orange pigments are the most resistant to laser tattoo removal, so if you’re ambivalent about your attitude toward your design 20 years from now, it might be safer to go with other colors. In general, vivid, non-organic colors are the hardest to have removed. White ink fades the fastest, so this pigment will require the most frequent touchups.

Sun Exposure

Tattoo ink resides in a place in your skin where special light-receptive skin cells are. These light-receptive skin cells are called melanocytes, and they secrete melanin when your skin is exposed to the sun. Melanin is what creates the bronze-brown color that appears on your skin after you’ve spent a few hours in the sun. When melanin mixes with ink pigment, your tattoo dulls. How much time you’ll be spending in the sun is something to consider, because this may significantly change the tone of your tattoo.

How Well the Skin Takes the Ink

Black and blue pigments are generally tolerated the best in your skin: they’re easily taken up, and they’re removed with the least effort. People with fairer skin will show more tattoo pigment, whereas people with darker skin will require a higher concentration of pigment before anything shows. Depending on how bold you want your design to be, you should select a color that will accomplish that goal: if you want your tattoo to be subtle, opt for a white or grey pigment; if you want your tattoo to be eye-catching, opt for a dark black pigment.

All in all, color is a very important factor in the decision process of getting a tattoo, and it’s not always a simple decision. Once you’ve considered all of the variables discussed throughout this article, you should consult with your tattoo artist to ensure that all of the colors are complementary within the design, and compatible with your overall look. Though you might not end up with the color scheme you set out to get, you’ll be grateful when your ink withstands the weathering of the sun and time.

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