Although peeling may be alarming, it is a natural and normal part of the tattoo healing process and not a cause for concern. Peeling typically occurs a few days after a person gets a tattoo.

Tattoos are a form of permanent body art that an artist creates using a needle to insert ink into the skin.

After getting a tattoo, it is essential to understand the correct aftercare process and what to expect during healing to reduce potential risks. Peeling is a part of the early stages of normal tattoo recovery, as the body rids itself of dead skin cells.

Although seeing flakes while washing a tattoo can be alarming, it is normal. It is important for people to follow through with their aftercare routine and use skin-sensitive antibacterial soap and suitable moisturizing lotion to help the healing process.

This article will explore tattoo peeling and the tattoo healing process. It will also cover aftercare tips and when a person should contact a doctor.

A person with many tattoos  experiencing peeling in the healing phase.Share on Pinterest
Photo edited by Stephen Kelly; Andrea Gjestvang/Getty Images

Peeling is a normal and expected part of tattoo healing. Tattoo needles penetrate the epidermis, or the outer layer of skin, and the dermis, which lies beneath. This process creates thousands of small wounds that damage skin cells.

Tattoos usually take about 2 weeks to heal, but it can take longer for the skin to fully recover. Peeling usually occurs a few days after getting the tattoo, as the skin begins to heal and regenerate itself.

The regeneration process involves the skin removing dead and damaged cells. As the skin exfoliates itself, a layer of dead skin cells and ink pigment peels off, allowing new cells to grow.

Although some peeling is normal, excessive peeling could indicate a problem, especially if there are symptoms of infection and inflammation.

Although peeling is normal and a natural part of the healing process, excessive peeling can damage a tattoo. However, if a person follows aftercare guidelines and leaves the skin to peel away naturally, there should be no negative consequences for the tattoo.

If a person does not properly care for their tattoo, or if they scratch or pick at it, they may lift and remove ink from the tattoo. This can cause patchy areas and ruin the appearance of the tattoo.

Additionally, because the tattoo is an open wound, scratching or picking at it increases the risk of infection. This can ruin the tattoo and may result in certain health complications.

If a tattoo is not peeling, it does not necessarily mean that something is wrong. Every person’s skin and healing processes are unique, meaning that peeling may happen later for some individuals or may not happen at all.

Other factors, such as the size and type of the tattoo, can also affect the extent of peeling.

If a tattoo is not peeling, people should not try to peel away the skin themselves. Exfoliating, scratching, or picking at the tattoo site can be painful, could ruin the tattoo, and may lead to infections or scarring.

Poor tattoo hygiene can give rise to infections, which hinder healing and can damage health.

For optimal healing and results, people should visit a reputable tattoo business that practices good aseptic techniques and follow a proper aftercare routine.

Healing time varies from person to person, but tattoos generally take about 2 weeks to heal. However, it may take up to 4 weeks for the skin to fully recover.

If tattoo professionals follow the correct guidelines and aseptic techniques, and if people apply appropriate aftercare, tattoos should heal quickly with minimal complications.

Here are some tattoo aftercare tips to keep the skin healthy and a tattoo looking its best:

  • Use water-based cream: If the tattoo and surrounding skin feel dry, use a water-based lotion or cream to moisturize the area. Avoid petroleum-based products, as these may cause the ink to fade.
  • Protect the tattoo from the sun: Sunlight is UV light that may cause tattoos to fade. Individuals with exposure to the sun should protect their tattoo with a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or above. Remember to apply the sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure and to reapply it every 2 hours.
  • Avoid tanning beds: Sunlamps and tanning beds can also cause tattoos to fade and increase skin cancer risk. Some individuals may find that this UV light causes a painful reaction on the tattooed skin.
  • Avoid moles: When an individual is considering getting a tattoo, they should choose an area of skin with no moles. Tattoos can mask early symptoms of skin cancer. People should note that when doctors treat skin cancer in its earliest stages, success rates are higher.
  • Washing the tattoo: It is important to wash the tattoo regularly but gently with fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, and antibacterial soap. A person should also gently pat the skin dry with a paper towel, before applying a cream.
  • Seek advice: If the skin reacts or changes, a person should visit a board certified dermatologist to avoid complications. The skin can react immediately or years following a tattoo. A dermatologist can diagnose and treat the issue.

Get more tattoo aftercare tips here.

People should expect some level of peeling as their tattoo heals. Nevertheless, if they notice the following symptoms, they should contact a doctor:

  • Rash: If the skin becomes flushed or blotchy, it could be due to an allergic reaction to the ink. People with inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis may find that the tattoo causes a flare-up and subsequent rash.
  • Inflammation: Should the tattoo and surrounding area become warm and swollen, a person may be experiencing inflammation. Although inflammation is a normal part of the healing process, it should not be excessive or long lasting.
  • Excessive itchiness: If the tattoo is extremely itchy, it could be an infection, inflammation, or an allergic reaction. However, some itchiness is normal.
  • Discharge: If the tattoo is oozing liquid, it can indicate an infection. If the individual also has a fever, they should seek urgent medical advice.
  • Scars: Tattoos that do not heal well may scar. A dermatologist can advise someone about scar minimization treatments.

If someone has an older tattoo that has healed but notices it becoming inflamed or bumpy, they should contact a doctor. The symptoms may be due to a condition called sarcoidosis.

For most people, tattoos heal with no issues within 2–4 weeks, and peeling is a natural part of this process. People should follow a proper aftercare routine to ensure optimal healing.

However, if a person notices any symptoms of infection, inflammation, or another severe problem, they should consider asking their doctor for advice.