Proper tattoo aftercare is essential to prevent scarring, infection, fading and drying out. Treating your new tattoo gently, providing a clean environment, and applying the right amount of moisturizer are keys to ensuring a successful healing process.
Why Does Aftercare Matter?
Tattoos are a form of art that involve having ink inserted into the skin with a needle. It is both an expression of style and a medical procedure, requiring skill and precision to create.
Caring for a new tattoo requires both clients and tattoo artists to take measures in order to ensure proper healing. To avoid scarring and infections, the artist should use sterile equipment and follow guidelines set by health departments. Proper aftercare should be outlined to the client as well.
It can be difficult to know how to take care of a tattoo, as not all states require their tattoo artists to provide aftercare instructions. Even the states that require them often leave it up to the artist to decide which information should be given.
Your Tattoo Aftercare, Day by Day
As soon as your tattoo is done, the aftercare begins.
Day 0 – The Cover Up
Your tattoo artist will likely apply a thin layer of ointment over the fresh tattoo and cover it with a bandage or plastic wrap.
The covering will prevent bacteria from entering the skin and protect the tattoo from irritation due to friction from the environment, including your clothes.
Leave the dressing on for the amount of time suggested by your tattoo artist; this will help to absorb any excess ink or fluid.
Most tattoo artists will provide written tattoo aftercare instructions to you before you leave the tattoo shop.
Remove the Covering
Depending on the advice of your tattoo artist, you can remove the covering in as little as a few hours after the tattoo is done. Sometimes your tattoo artist will recommend leaving it on until the next morning.
Before you remove the covering, wash your hands with soap and water.
If the covering sticks to the tattoo, gently soak it with warm water and fragrance-free soap (under a faucet or in the shower) until it easily peals away or slides off.
Once the covering is removed, fluid leaking from the tattoo is normal and likely a combination of blood, plasma and excess ink. The skin in the tattooed area may be red and sore and feel slightly warm to the touch. Swelling or bruising may occur in some cases.
From this point on, your healing tattoo will remain uncovered to allow it to breathe.
Gently Wash and Moisturize Your Fresh Tattoo
Gently clean the tattoo area using warm water and fragrance-free soap. Don’t scrub or rub it. Pat your new tattoo dry with a soft, clean cloth.
You can apply a thin layer of fragrance-free, color-free, and alcohol-free moisturizer to the tattoo area. The idea here is to let the skin breathe by leaving the covering off and not letting the moisturizer be too thick. Petroleum jelly is generally not recommended.
The Do’s and Don’ts During Aftercare
In general, for the next few weeks, or until your tattoo is completely healed, you’ll want to follow these guidelines–or those of your written tattoo aftercare instructions–every day.
- Never scratch or pick at the tattoo, particularly if there is a scab or the skin has begun to peal.
- Don’t wear tight clothing over your tattoo (like an elastic hem, for example).
- Don’t expose your new tattoo to extended stays in water (like a pool or hot tub); a shower is fine.
- Don’t expose your new tattoo to the sun.
- Don’t use sunblock; instead wear SPF rated clothing.
- Call your tattoo artist or doctor if you have any questions or experience any symptoms of an infection or allergic reaction.
The number of days that your tattoo will take to heal will depend on the skill of your tattoo artist, the size of the tattoo, and how much work was done repeatedly in various areas during the tattoo process.
My Experience: Grey shading requires repeated tattooing with a very light black ink, almost watery in appearance, in order to achieve subtle changes in density. It’s a beautiful end effect, but harder on the skin than other types of shading that I’ve had done.
The larger the tattoo, the more trauma your body has experienced. You’ll see in photos of brand new tattoos that the skin is red and swollen. This is the body’s natural reaction to trauma. The larger your tattoo, the longer your healing process might be.
Day 1 (The Day After Your Tattoo) to Day 2
Your new tattoo will start to appear dull and cloudy, which is a sign that the skin is healing. You’re actually looking through the damaged epidermis that will eventually slough off as dead skin.
Scabs may begin to form, though not all tattoos will scab.
Wash Your Tattoo Once or Twice a Day
As noted above, wash your hands with soap and water. Only then should you gently clean the tattoo area using warm water and fragrance-free soap. Never scrub and use only your hand. Pat your new tattoo dry with a soft, clean cloth.
You may notice ink, blood, and ointment come off the tattoo site. All of that is a normal part of the healing process.
Pro tip: If you’re getting an extensive tattoo or if you get tattooed repeatedly, a dedicated set of sheets can help keep any staining to the one set.
Moisturize Each Time You Wash
Gently apply a thin layer of fragrance-free, color-free, and alcohol-free moisturizer after the tattoo is clean. Your goal is to keep the tattoo from itching, while letting the tattoo breathe as well.
Days 3 to 5
At this point in your tattoo aftercare and healing process, redness, inflammation and any bruising should start to fade.
You might begin to see a scab appear. Tattoo scabs are unlike the ones you’re probably familiar with. They are generally very thin, almost like a decal.
But whatever type of scab you experience, never, ever pick at it. You risk scarring and also removing some pigment if you do.
Continue washing your tattoo once or twice a day. Also keep applying a fragrance-free and alcohol free moisturizer.
Days 7 to 14
In this second week of your healing process, you’ll get into a tattoo aftercare routine for your yet-to-be-healed tattoo. It will likely be much itchier now, but even so, never scratch.
Your tattoo may begin to flake at this stage, which is natural. Like a sunburn, the damaged epidermis comes off, but with a tattoo, it will have ink in it. Again, this is expected. The ink that was caught in your epidermis was never going to be part of your permanent tattoo anyway.
Leave pealing skin and scabs alone, never pick.
Wash and moisturize your tattoo as much as necessary to help keep it from itching.
If you see that your tattoo is still red or swollen during this second week, it’s possible that you have an infection. Please consult with your tattoo artist and/or see your doctor.
Days 15 to 30
At this point in your tattoo aftercare process, you’re nearly pealed and healed. In weeks three and four of your healing process, your skin may still be pealing and you may still have scabs.
As always, never pick at pealing skin or scabs. Let them fall off naturally.
Your tattoo may look dry and not as vibrant. That’s because the ink that was in your epidermis, the surface of your skin, is sloughing off. Keep moisturizing the area to keep the new skin hydrated.
By the end of week three or four, your tattooed skin should be completely healed. It’s only at this point that you can start swimming again, wear constricting clothes over the tattoo, etc.
Tattoo Aftercare Products
I don’t recommend specific aftercare products for cleaning and moisturizing tattooed skin because the products change.
But these are the guidelines you want to use when selecting your own.
Get your tattoo artist’s recommendation. They are working with skin and its healing on a daily basis.
Use a mild soap that is fragrance-free. It doesn’t need to be anti-bacterial. You’re trying to avoid harsh chemicals.
Again, consult your tattoo artist for a recommendation.
To keep your newly tattooed skin moisturized, choose a product that is fragrance-free, color-free, and alcohol-free. You’re trying to avoid anything that would irritate or dry out your skin.
Avoid using a pure petroleum-based product like Vaseline so that the skin can breathe.
Use only a thin layer of moisturizer, again so that the skin can breathe.
Potential Health Risks
As noted above, in the first week of having a new tattoo, you can reasonably expect some redness and swelling, as well as fluid leaking from your skin.
But if you experience any of the following during your healing process, please consult your tattoo artist and/or your doctor.
Inadequately cared-for tattoos can become infected, which is characterized by redness, warmth and pain. Pus may also be present.
Getting a tattoo with contaminated equipment or ink can result in blood-borne infections, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus, and HIV.
People with sensitive skin may develop an itchy, red reaction where the tattoo is placed. Red dyes are most likely to cause an allergic reaction, as well as nonallergic reactions like photosensitivity. A 2019 study found that red, blue and black dyes were more likely to cause skin reactions than other colors.
Injuries from the needle used for a tattoo or from picking at the tattoo site can result in scarring that may be permanent.
If you’re prone to keloids (a type of raised scar made from fibroblasts), then you’ll want to talk with your tattoo artist and/or doctor about getting a tattoo, since the tattooing process inherently involves damage to the skin.
Lifelong Tattoo Aftercare Tips
Believe it or not, you can think of tattoo aftercare as a lifelong process when it comes to your body art. Here are a few tips to help you in that journey.
Keep your tattoo out of the direct sunlight. It is tattoo enemy number one. In general, it’s the main reason for a tattoo fading (due to the UV rays).
Keep your tattoo damage free. If you experience a cut or abrasion on your tattoo, the resulting scar will obscure your ink.
Keep your size about the same. Whether it’s from working out or eating out, excessive weight gain (or loss) will distort your tattoo.
Frequently Asked Questions
No Swim, No Sea, No Sauna, No Soak, No Sun, No Scratch, No Sweat, No Sex (just kidding on that last one!)
You can take a shower when your covering is removed. But use warm water and soap, and avoid submerging or soaking it until it’s had time (3 to 4 weeks) to completely heal.
Use a thin layer of fragrance-free, color-free, and alcohol-free moisturizer to keep your tattoo hydrated and reduce itching.