How to Care For Your New Tattoo
You invested time, money, and pain in a new piece. You put your thought and passion into the idea. You selected the right artist to realize your vision.
But the effort to walk away with the beautiful body art you envisioned isn’t over yet. If you don’t take the right steps, your tattoo won’t heal right. It can become infected. It can fade or blow out. It can heal better in some places, resulting in spots of inconsistent coloring or shading.
The first few weeks are critical for your ink. They will make the difference between a vibrant, crisp tattoo and a faded, distorted one. Our goal is to help you walk away with a well-healed tattoo you’ll wear with pride. This article gives you a rundown of the essential processes and considerations to make that happen.
Essential Care Steps
The fundamentals for healing your tattoo
- Remove bandage 30 to 45 minutes after getting the tattoo
- Wash with unscented, antibacterial soap and lukewarm, body-temperature water
- Gently wipe with a wet paper towel and either air dry or pat with a dry, clean paper towel
- Let your tattoo breathe in the open air for up to 30 minutes (and as few as 5)
- Apply a thin layer of aftercare using clean hands; don’t smother your tattoo—let it breathe
- Repeat 1x a day for 1 week, then as needed
Note: don’t worry about dryness and flaking. You want your tattoo to be able to flake without the flakes sticking to the skin. Most people smother their tattoos to keep them from drying. You want the fresh tattoo to breathe and to exfoliate. It it’s doing that, it’s healing faster.
WARNING: Avoid petroleum jelly products like Aquaphor and Vaseline. They clog pores and prevent your tattoo from breathing, disrupting the healing process. Some contain ingredients that will leach ink. Their use can slow healing, cause breakouts, and fade your tattoo. Do not use them before, during, or after tattooing.
CAUTION: Don’t leave the bandage on for more than a couple of hours. Your tattoo will seep and leak body fluids, keeping your tattoo moist and hot. This is a more acute risk with plastic wrap bandages. A hot, humid place is the perfect environment for bacterial infections to take hold. If using a medical bandage, you risk fluids drying and sticking the bandage to your tattoo.
Shoot to take the bandage off after 45 minutes or so. Wash your hands with unscented antibacterial soap. Then, gently but thoroughly clean your tattoo with the same soap before applying an aftercare balm.
Artists usually use medical tape to hold bandages in place. If you have allergies to adhesives, consider bringing your own tape.
What to Do
- Always wash your hands before touching your tattoo. Keep your tattoo moisturized to prevent dryness and cracking.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing at night to avoid ink setting on your bedding. If the tattoo is on your back, sleep on your stomach for a few days. If your tattoo gets stuck to anything, like bedding or clothes, get in a lukewarm or cold shower to get it wet before pulling off.
- At the end of a shower, turn the water temperature to cold and run over your tattoo for a minute to close the pores. Or, apply a dripping cold compress.
- If your bandage becomes stuck to your tattoo, get in the shower and soak with lukewarm or cold water until it comes off easily. Don’t pull it off.
- Irritation is normal, but if it persists past 4 or 5 days, see your artist for advice. For infections and serious reactions, seek the help of a medical professional. You'll want to talk to your artist too, still.
What Not to Do
- Do not re-bandage your tattoo.
- Don’t scratch or pick at your tattoo. If it itches and you must have relief, slap it with the flat of your hand. Beware that while better than scratching, you should still try to avoid this type of touch.
- Do not submerge in water, including pools, hot tubs, or baths. In particular, avoid oceans, lakes, and rivers. These are full of bacteria that can infect your tattoo.
- Do not use petroleum jelly products like Aquaphor and Vaseline. These smother the tattoo, locking in moisture, preventing breathing, and even pulling ink out.
- Do not use anti-bacterial and medicated ointments. Such products, like A&D are petroleum jelly based. They also warn against use on puncture wounds and may heal your tattoo too fast while leaching ink. (Yes, it's possible to heal too fast).
- Do not use Aloe Vera, because it heals the skin too fast and doesn’t keep it moist.
- Do activities that will open up your pores or make you sweat, such as using saunas, or steam baths.
- Do not do hard exercise. Sweating opens your pores, increasing the risk of both infection and leaching. Plus, vigorous activity puts you at risk of stretching the skin and blowing out your ink.
What to Avoid
- Avoid exposure to the sun. Sun is your new tattoo’s worst enemy. If exposed to the sun, your tattoo can scar, fade, and heal spotty. If you work outside, cover your tattoo in loose-fitting clothing.
- Avoid contact with other skin, especially other people’s skin.
- Avoid contact with unwashed hands.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing. It can get stuck to healing skin and cause irritation through abrasion.
- Avoid rough materials that can irritate your tattoo. Irritation increases the body’s inflammatory immune response. Your tattoo actually relies on the immune system's inflammation response to heal. But, too much inflammation sends the wrong signals to your body. Excessive irritation can cause to your body rejecting the ink.
- Avoid gym equipment. For best results, avoid exercise and sweat in general.
- Avoid contamination with pet hair or dander.
What to Expect
- Your new tattoo is an open wound and will weep and bleed a bit for up to 24 hours. During the first night, make sure there's a loose-fitting, breathable barrier between your tattoo and your bedding.
- Your skin may begin to peel, like a mild sunburn. This is normal. As long as you’re following the care steps outlined above, this is no reason for concern.
- You may see some flakes of inked skin peeling as you apply your aftercare. Again, assuming you’ve followed all other steps, this is nothing to worry about.
- Your tattoo may sting and become swollen before scabbing, becoming itchy, and peeling. Don’t pick at it no matter what! If swollen, you can apply a cold compress or ice bag. Just be sure to do so in moderation. Try not to exceed five minutes. This is to ensure the helpful inflammatory immune response that’s healing your tattoo isn’t impeded. If itching persists once the tattoo is healed, talk to a dermatologist.
- Your tattoo may feel bumpy after healing. This is normal. Your ink needs to settle. The bumps should go away after 4 weeks. After that time, persistent bumps may be a sign of an allergy to the ink in the tattoo. This can be treated by a dermatologist, often with simple topical creams. While not a likely outcome, if it does happen, don’t hesitate to get relief from a doctor.
What You Don’t Want to Happen
It’s a good idea to keep in mind the potential bad outcomes of improper care. Know the possibilities and you’ll be extra motivated to do what you need to do for the first few weeks of your tattoo’s life.
- Infection. This is the worst possible outcome. The infection will fade your tattoo when it finally heals. It will heal spotty and inconsistent. In cases of extreme infection, this effect will be more pronounced. A major infection will cause lots of fading, plus scarring, dips, or grooves where the infection ate away at the skin. To avoid this, be diligent about your cleaning and keep your tattoo away from surfaces that carry germs.
- Blowing out your tattoo. This happens when ink disperses beyond where intended to go. It’s also often the result of stress on recovering skin. Any stretching and pulling of the skin increases the risk of blowout.
- Fading. Several things can cause loss of vibrancy to your new tattoo. Exposure to the sun, submerging in water, pulling out of scabs and flaky skin, using lotions with chemicals, or using petroleum jelly can all cause fading.
- Spottiness. It’s possible that your tattoo heals with some faded spots, whereas the rest still looks vibrant. Pulling on scabs or flaking skin or of pressure or abrasion on the skin, often during sleeping, is the likely culprit. Leave your tattoo alone when you’re not cleaning it and be extra careful to not let anything touch it.
Week 1: Oozing and Infection Risks
On the first day, your tattoo looks bright and fresh. It will look roughly the way it will look once healed, though a bit brighter. It will begin to leak plasma, blood, and even ink as your body begins the healing process. This is normal.
Day 1 and the rest of week one are the most critical period for care. Your tattoo is at its most susceptible to infection. By day 2, the healing process is in full swing. Along with oozing of plasma, you may notice that the tattoo is giving off some heat. This is also normal. The inflammation of your body’s immune response sends resources to the area to heal the wound. If you are prone to bruising, you may notice bruising around the tattoo site during this stage.
Refer back to the first section in this article on essential care steps. Keep your tattoo clean. Consider every piece of advice here doubly true during week 1.
Image from Authority Tattoo
Week 2: Flaking, Scabbing, and the Risk of Pulling Ink
Around day 6 or 7, your tattoo will go from moist and oozy to scabbed and flaky. The wound closes is less susceptible to infection (though infection is still possible).
Congratulations! You’re through one of the most risky periods.
But you’re not out of the forest yet. How you treat your tattoo during this time can have a big effect on the results. Accidental touches and scrapes can still be a problem. But the risk is now more around pulling ink out with scabby, flaky skin. Remember, this risks distorting the results or causing inconsistent coloring and shading. Itching and touching are your enemy during this time. Never EVER scratch or pick. If you absolutely must have relief from the itching, a cooling pad is your best bet. Keep in mind that this can increase the risk of infection. The cooling will decrease your body’s inflammatory immune response, which is necessary to some degree. As long as you’re following all other given precautions, this should be fine.
Some people recommend pressure or even slapping an itchy tattoo with the flat of your hand. Keep in mind that this may extend the healing period.
Image from Tattoodo
Weeks 3 and 4: Feeling Better but Looking Dull
Most scabs have now fallen off and the worst of the itching is behind. Your tattoo will likely now look dull and faded. Don’t worry. It’s actually hiding behind a layer of temporarily scarred epidermis. The upper layer of skin is working to settle after repair. The remnants of the previous layer that are still flaking off will obscure the new top layer and the skin below. Check your tattoo for any patchy or faded spots that might need touched up. Now’s a good time to schedule a touch-up session with your artist, if so. You can now begin your long-term care and moisturization regimen. Do so with caution. For your tattoo’s long-term preservation you will want to moisturize as needed and to apply sunblock daily. During this period, you can start that long-term care with sparing application of unscented lotion. Don't yet use sunblock, yet.
Image from LoveToKnow
Long Term Care
While there are lots of things you can do to ensure the long-term vibrance of your tattoo, the most important is to always apply sunscreen before going outside. Keep your life simple by making this routine, applying it in the morning (after your shower, if you’re a morning shower person). Otherwise, apply anytime before heading out into the wide world. Unfortunately, many sunblocks contain chemicals that are harmful with regular use. Find a natural sunscreen. Ones for sensitive skin may be the best long-term solution for people of any skin type.
Applying non-scented lotion daily or at least during dry winter months is also a good idea. As dry, dead skin cells can obscure the tattoo, some do light exfoliation every so often. Keep your tattoo moisturized to keep it looking years younger.
For a more in-depth breakdown of the healing process, check out this article by Tattoo Authority.
Tattoo Location Healing Considerations
Feet and Ankles
Hands and Fingers
Behind The Ear
Here are some more great resources to help you heal your tattoo flawlessly. While there are a few points here and there that we don't fully agree with, these are by-and-large great resources. We believe in finding optimal answers through broad study, so we're sharing more perspectives. If there's something you're unsure about, reach out to us!
Have questions about tattoo care? Reach out to us via Facebook Messenger or via email through our contact page.
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