Pimples can develop on tattoos due to clogged hair follicles, allergic reactions, and underlying skin conditions.
This article will discuss some of the causes of tattoo pimples, as well as how to treat and prevent them.
The tattooing process involves using a motorized device called a tattoo gun to rapidly inject pigmented ink about 1.5 to 2 millimeters below the surface of the skin. Tattooing creates multiple puncture wounds in the skin.
Any trauma to the skin triggers an immune response that helps prevent infection and promote healing. Specifically, the immune system sends specialized cells to destroy bacteria and damaged skin tissue. The immune system also triggers blood clotting and inflammation in areas of damaged skin.
These immune responses lead to common tattoo side effects, such as redness, swelling, tenderness, and itchy, flaky skin. Such side effects usually fade once the skin heals and adjusts to the ink.
Pimples may appear on fresh or old tattoos as a result of:
New tattoos can cause skin irritation and inflammation. Skin inflammation may trigger breakouts on freshly tattooed skin.
Also, wearing constricting clothing or bandages that rub against newly tattooed skin can make skin irritation worse.
Acne vulgaris is a skin condition that occurs when the sebaceous glands in the skin produce excess sebum. Sebum is an oily substance that contains triglycerides, fatty acids, wax esters, and squalene. It helps moisturize the skin and hair.
Excess sebum can trap dirt, dead skin cells, and bacteria inside hair follicles and form pimples on the skin’s surface.
Newer tattoos are especially vulnerable to bacterial infections during the healing process. However, people who have acne-prone skin can also develop pimples on older tattoos.
Tattoo artists will usually advise that people keep new tattoos dry. Most artists will cover a new tattoo with plastic wrap to keep moisture in the skin and to prevent foreign particles from entering the wound.
People should remove this plastic wrap after a few hours and leave their tattoo uncovered until it heals.
Bandaging a tattoo or applying too much ointment can trap moisture under the skin, causing a bubbling effect. Excess moisture can lead to scabbing and color loss and contribute to pimples.
The bacterium responsible for acne, Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), grows in moist areas, such as the groin and armpits. Tattoos that accumulate excess moisture may therefore promote the growth of P. acnes.
Developing a pimple on a tattoo does not necessarily indicate that the tattoo is infected. For example, people who have acne-prone skin may develop pimples on their tattoo as a result of excess sebum production.
Tattoo pimples may develop when a person applies too much ointment to their tattoo, or if they have an allergy to the ingredients inside their ointment.
In most cases, acne blemishes will not damage a tattoo. However, picking or popping a pimple will increase the risk of spreading harmful bacteria to nearby skin, which can lead to more pimples on an old tattoo or a skin infection in a new tattoo.
Picking or popping pimples on a new tattoo can also lead to color loss or patches of faded ink. Old tattoos are less vulnerable to ink loss. However, picking a pimple may create scars that affect the overall appearance of a fully healed tattoo.
Treatments for tattoo pimples vary depending on the age of the tattoo.
For new tattoos, a person should avoid using topical treatments that contain ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. These ingredients can lead to skin irritation and excessively dry skin, which may impair the healing process.
Instead, to treat a pimple on a new tattoo, a person should wash the area with warm water and antibacterial soap.
People may also wish to consider finding a noncomedogenic ointment. Many popular tattoo ointments contain highly comedogenic ingredients, such as petroleum, glycerin, and lanolin.
People have a few more options when it comes to treating pimples on old tattoos.
Compared with fresh tattoos, fully healed tattoos will likely respond better to over-the-counter (OTC) or at-home spot treatments. Consider the following products for treating pimples on old tattoos:
- an anti-acne body cleanser
- a face wash that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide
- topical retinoid products
- OTC spot treatments, such as Differin Gel or COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patch
- oral or topical antibiotics
The following natural home remedies may also help clear up pimples on tattoos:
- tea tree oil
- witch hazel
- green tea masks
- aloe vera gel
- zinc supplements
- fish oil supplements
People can prevent tattoo pimples by following their artist’s aftercare instructions, which usually involve:
- cleansing the tattoo with warm water and antibacterial soap
- moisturizing the tattoo with a fragrance-free ointment or lotion
- keeping the tattoo dry
- minimizing sun exposure
- not picking at or scratching the tattoo
Do not pick or attempt to pop a tattoo pimple. Trying to pop a pimple increases the risk of spreading acne-causing bacteria to other parts of the skin. People also run the risk of damaging their tattoo if they pick or pop a pimple in the area.
Tattooing creates numerous puncture wounds in the skin, creating one large wound. The tattooing process may trigger pimples or rashes in people who have sensitive or acne-prone skin.
Getting a tattoo in an unsanitary environment can lead to bacterial or viral skin infections. Some symptoms of a skin infection include:
Tattoo pimples that do not heal within a few weeks may indicate:
People can prevent skin infections by:
- cleansing a new tattoo with warm water and antibacterial soap
- keeping a new tattoo dry
- applying a thin layer of noncomedogenic moisturizer
- thoroughly washing the hands before handling a new tattoo
- not picking at flaking skin or pimples
A minor allergic reaction can lead to bumps or rashes on the skin, as well as:
- dry, itchy, or flaky skin
- swelling or fluid accumulation near the tattoo ink
A severe allergic reaction can lead to:
- a painful burning sensation on or near the tattoo
- pus accumulation under the skin
Other skin conditions
The tattooing process can worsen or trigger underlying skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis. This is because tattooing triggers the body’s natural immune response, which usually causes temporary swelling and redness.
However, chronic skin conditions occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy skin cells. Any trauma to the skin can trigger an immune response and lead to persistent or severe inflammation, as well as:
- patches of red, scaly skin
- dry, flaky, or itchy skin
- red, white, or pus filled bumps
- open sores
- skin discoloration
People can place a tattoo over acne scars. Although the tattoo may make the scars less noticeable, it will not change the skin’s texture.
Scar tissue forms when the immune system attempts to heal skin damage. Acne scars can appear raised or depressed depending on the amount of collagen present in the skin.
Generally, people should avoid tattooing over fresh scar tissue because it is extremely sensitive. People who want to tattoo over acne scars or other types of scar tissue should consult an experienced tattoo artist.
People should also avoid getting a tattoo when they have an active breakout. The tattooing process can spread bacteria to other parts of the skin or worsen existing pimples. A person can safely get a tattoo when their breakout resolves.
A person may need to see their doctor or dermatologist if their pimples do not heal or respond to at-home or OTC treatments. People who have severe acne may need a prescription antibiotic.
A person should also seek medical attention if they notice any symptoms of a skin infection, such as:
- areas of hard tissue under or near a tattoo
- tattooed skin that feels warm or swollen
- fluid buildup in the skin near a tattoo
- bumps containing or leaking pus
Tattoo pimples can develop when a hair follicle becomes clogged with oil, dirt, or skin cells.
Most tattoo pimples will clear up without causing permanent damage or color loss. However, picking or popping a pimple can lead to skin infections and patches of faded ink.
People should consult their tattoo artist before applying medicated acne treatments to a new tattoo. Tattoo artists can explain how to care for and prevent infections in new tattoos.