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A tattoo is a personal and permanent work of art. It is also a type of wound. Tattoo machines use a fast-moving needle to inject ink deep into the skin. Just as proper care ensures that a painting can hang in a gallery undamaged for years, tattoo aftercare is an important part of preserving a tattoo.
Tattoo aftercare can be confusing, especially if it is a person’s first tattoo. This guide will provide detailed instructions on how to care for a new tattoo and tips for keeping tattooed skin looking young and healthy.
Proper aftercare in the first few weeks after getting a tattoo can help prevent an infection and keep the tattoo looking good.
The initial bandage
Tattoo aftercare starts in the tattoo shop. Once the tattoo is done, the artist will apply a thin layer of tattoo jelly or moisturizer over the entire tattooed area. They will then cover the area completely with plastic wrap or a bandage.
As tempting as it can be to remove the protective cover to look at the tattoo, the bandage or plastic wrap should stay on for at least a few hours after the process. The length of time will depend on the size and location of the tattoo.
This covering protects the open skin from bacteria, sunlight, and from rubbing against clothing.
The first wash
After usually no less than 5 hours, it is safe to remove the bandage and wash the tattoo.
After thorough hand-washing, a person can gently wash the tattoo with hypoallergenic soap and warm water using their fingers.
The moisturizer on the skin will come off, and the tattoo may appear as if it is oozing ink or a thick, sticky substance. This reaction is not usually a cause for concern, as it is just the excess fluid and ink from the tattoo process.
After washing, a person should pat the skin with a clean paper towel and allow it to air-dry for up to an hour. When the area is completely dry, they can apply a thin layer of moisturizer to the tattoo, but leave it uncovered to allow the skin to breathe.
Some tattoo artists recommend waiting between 24-48 hours before applying moisturizer, though others recommend doing so as soon as the first wash. A person with a fresh tattoo should follow their tattoo artist’s instructions on when to start using moisturizer.
For the first couple of days, the tattooed skin may feel warm to the touch and have a reddish appearance. The colors may also appear very bright against the rest of the skin. The tattoo will become less vibrant as the healing process continues.
A person should avoid submerging the tattoo in water or getting the tattoo wet during the first 3–6 weeks, except for when washing it.
A person can continue using the washing technique above throughout the first week when needed. How often washing is necessary will vary depending on a person’s activity levels and environment.
Someone who is sitting in an air-conditioned office all day may only need to wash the tattoo once a day. However, someone who is working in a hot or dirty environment and sweating may need to wash the tattoo every few hours.
It is best to wash the tattoo with clean fingers only and not a cloth or towel, which may irritate the skin and prematurely remove any scabs that may have formed.
Scabs will often form in the first few days, and ink may still come up through the skin and need to be washed away. It is important not to pick the scabs or scratch the skin.
In general, Scabbing is not a sign of improper wound care. Scabs will form anytime the skin is injured, and can be a sign of healthy tissue forming underneath the wound.
Keeping some form of antibiotic ointment or moisturizer under occlusion (as long as there is no known allergy) on the wound can help it heal better and the sooner this is done the better healing will happen with less chances of scarring.
Any redness or mild swelling usually goes away near the end of the first week.
Around the beginning of the second week, the scabs will start to flake off. It is important to be especially gentle with washing and moisturizing during this week, as it is easy to tear away scabs and damage the tattoo.
The skin is likely to feel very itchy during this week. However, it must not be scratched. Additional moisturizer may help relieve the itch. Using a moisturizer that is kept in the refrigerator may also soothe itchy or irritated skin.
If necessary, an over-the-counter product, such as Benadryl, may be taken by mouth to help relieve the itching.
Week three and beyond
The final stage of healing can be slow, and requires patience. Most of the larger scabs will have flaked and fallen away by now. Small scabs and bits of dead skin may appear. However, these will also clear up as the healing process continues.
Scabs and flaking skin can cause the area to look dry and dull. Applying moisturizer and protecting the tattoo from the sun will help with these issues.
The outer layers of skin should completely heal by the end of week three. The inner layers of skin can take longer to heal. However, they require much less care.
The chance of infection is reduced once the outer layers of skin have healed, as there is no open wound for bacteria to infect.
Moisturizing regularly in the months following will help keep the tattoo looking bright and clear. Protecting the tattoo from the sun with clothing while it is healing, and applying sunscreen after it has healed, is especially important in the first few months.
Ink rejection or allergy
At any stage in the healing process, the body may reject an ink color. If the body is allergic to an ink, a raised and painful rash may form on the skin.
To avoid ink rejection, some tattoo artists will do an allergy test with the color in question by applying a small amount to the skin. If it causes a reaction, it is not safe to use.
Ink allergies may occur because tattoo ink colors contain many different substances. For example, black ink contains carbon, and red ink contains mercury sulfide.
Anyone experiencing a rash on or around a tattoo should visit a doctor, who can identify and treat the rash. The person may also wish to contact their tattoo artist.
Each tattoo artist is likely to have a different recommendation for what moisturizer someone should use. Common recommendations include:
- alcohol-free healing ointments, such as Eucerin or Curel
- coconut oil
- tattoo-specific cream, such as Tattoo Goo
- pure cocoa butter or shea butter
It is important not to use any scented creams or lotions. Harsh chemicals can irritate the wound and damage the tattooed skin.
A person should also avoid using sunscreen on a tattoo until it is fully healed, as this can clog the pores and trap bacteria.
Tattoos are a lifelong commitment and require some special care to keep them looking good for many years to come.
What to do
Here’s what a person can take good care of their tattoo:
- Always use fragrance-free, hypoallergenic soap and moisturizer when caring for a tattoo, as harsh chemicals and fragrances can irritate and even damage freshly tattooed skin.
- Use a moisturizer that allows the skin to breathe, as clogged pores can cause an infection.
- Make sure the area is completely dry before applying aftercare moisturizer, as trapping excess moisture under the skin can lead to irritation and heat rash.
- Wash the tattoo regularly but gently, especially after dirty or sweaty activities.
- Drink plenty of water to help keep the skin moist and supple.
- While healing, cover the tattoo with clothing or a bandage whenever it might be exposed to the sun.
What not to do
Here’s what someone should avoid when it comes to tattoo aftercare:
- Soaps and moisturizers with any fragrances or harsh chemicals. Even if a product does not normally irritate the skin, it may irritate the tattooed area.
- Picking at scabs, as this can cause scar tissue to form.
- Scratching the tattoo even if it becomes itchy.
- Non-cosmetic grade petroleum moisturizers, which will clog the pores.
- Using sunscreen on the tattoo before it has fully healed.
- Swimming before the tattoo has healed.
Tattoo care is simple once the process is understood. However, there are still times when a doctor may be needed.
Infection is the most common reason to see a doctor after a tattoo. If a person does not care for it properly, a tattoo can become infected with bacteria.
Blood-borne infections can occur if the tattoo artist used dirty needles or ink. These infections can include:
A person should contact a doctor if any signs of infection occur.
The most important factor for tattoo care is working with a professional, highly-recommended tattoo artist. This helps avoid any complications and makes the healing process much easier.
Following the tattoo artist’s instructions on self-care is often a person’s best line of defence against infection and poor healing. Regular care for a tattoo can help prevent infection and keep both the skin and tattoo preserved for years to come.