Tattoo Aftercare – Your Complete Guide

It’s very important to know How to Care for a Tattoo, since your tattoo aftercare affects how your tattoo ends up looking. Tattoos that are poorly cared for might end up with splotches of lighter color or (even worse) an infection. Tattoos, properly cared for, look vibrant and healthy when they finish healing. Today, I talk all about what you need to do to maximizing the rate at which your tattoos heal!

The secret to caring for your tattoo lies in dedication. Your dedication and fervent care go a long way towards a timeless tattoo. The actions you take to protect your tattoo—especially in the first two months of healing—keeps your tattoo looking good for decades. While tattoos are permanent, improper care leads to faded tattoos, tattoos with blurry edges, lost color, or distorted designs. With a combination of tattoo aftercare products and dedication, everyone can enjoy a perfectly-healed tattoo–without all that itching! Use this guide to prevent infection in the short-term and look excellent in the long-term.

 

Tattoo Aftercare Timeline

For those of you who just need the basics, the timeline and the infographic at the end of this article sum it up for you. The tattoo healing time varies depending on your type and size of the tattoo, so this timeline represents the general average. Simply check what time matches your own and act accordingly. We explain each stage in much more detail later on in the article, so stay tuned! I also have a dedicated article for the tattoo healing process, so go check that one out if you want to know all the nitty gritty details of what happens when, and why.

 

Aftercare TimelineInstructions
At the studioYour artist cleans and wraps it! You don't need to do anything besides choosing a good artist who knows what they’re doing.
After About 2 HoursRemove your bandage/wrapping and gently wash it.
The First NightWear clean clothes that you can stain, use only clean sheets and towels, and let the tattoo breathe as much as possible.
Day 1Repeat the gentle washing and apply a tattoo lotion, cream, or ointment to prevent infection.
Day 2 to 14Large flakes, as if from a sunburn, form over the tattoo. Some people scab instead. Avoid scratching or itching the flakes. Instead, use a tattoo aftercare moisturizer.
Day 15 to 30Your tattoo completely heals. In that period, you still might see some redness and swelling. Continue using tattoo moisturizer and tattoo soaps.
The First 3 MonthsAvoid the sun. Use a tattoo sunscreen whenever you go out!
After 3 MonthKeep it moisturized (like you care for the rest of your skin) and protected from the sun—either by wearing sunscreen or protective clothing.

 

How To Care For a Tattoo On The First Day

When you first get your tattoo, your artist will commonly treat it with an antibacterial ointment and bandage it with plastic wrap, paper towels, and sometimes tape. Warn your artist if you have an allergy to adhesive so that they can use a different kind of tape for you. Ultimately, how they bandage it doesn’t matter too muchyou’ll want to take off that bandage after about two hours so that your tattoo can begin its healing process. Keeping it on any longer encourages bacteria to grow in the dark, moist area of your tattoo. Giving it some air prevents infection and speeds up healing.

 

Remove Your Tattoo Bandage

When you remove your bandage, make sure you clean, disinfect, and dry your hands. Bacteria cover everyone’s hands as a rule, so hands easily spread infection. While your tattoo heals, make sure to wash your hands compulsively and avoid touching the tattoo unless you’re washing. If your bandage is stuck to the tattoo, worry not. Get a small spray bottle or cloth and rinse the bandage not your tattoo with water. As the bandage gets wet, it should stop sticking to your tattoo. Avoid getting any water on your tattoo for now (during the removal of the bandage), and slowly ease the bandage off. If it still stings, consider using some tattoo numbing gel.

 

As soon as you remove your bandage, you’ll notice that your tattoo feels kind of like a sunburn. If it hurts more than you expected, any over-the-counter pain medication will help with it. Ibuprofen seems to have the best effect. Once it’s off, you don’t have to bandage it again.

 

After taking off the bandage, you might be tempted to wash off all the grime. Well, good news—you can! But, you have to follow very specific instructions. Read on to learn how to wash a new tattoo.

tattoo - aftercare - 1

How to Wash a New Tattoo

Before washing, make sure you have a good tattoo soap. Avoid soaps containing high amounts of petroleum or alcohol (hydrogen peroxide). Despite its status as a main ingredient in antibacterial soap, alcohol breaks down tattoo ink. That means you need specialized soaps that contain different types of antibiotics. Furthermore, petroleum runs the risk of clogging your tattoo. Instead, tattoo soaps use mineral oil (another form of petroleum), or simply pick a natural oil to use. Make sure that whatever you use also has no fragrance. To save you time, use any of the various safe tattoo aftercare soaps I list in the following recommendations section.

 

On top of being careful of soaps, you need to be careful of water. Essentially, keep your tattoo away from running water. A few brief minutes in the shower is fine, provided you keep your tattoo out of the water flow, but direct application seeps deep into your tattoo and risks making it waterlogged. It’s okay to let bits of shower water hit it, but only use enough to get the grime off. You don’t want it soaked or warmed up, so use lukewarm or cold water while washing it. Using cool water prevents your pores from opening and leaking out too much ink. A moist towel is the best way to apply water, and definitely keep it out from underneath a faucet.

tattoo aftercare 2

 

Lather up your hands with soap and then wash away the grime with your hands. Don’t use loofahs or cloths for this, since they can contain high amounts of bacteria—especially if you let them air-dry in the shower every time after you wash with them. Scrubbing or rubbing the tattoo dry damages the skin and scabs, risking your tattoo’s color!

 

Once you finish washing, use a paper towel to pat your tattoo dry. Paper towels are better than regular towels because there’s a smaller risk of infection. Plus, if any of the colored scud is still on your skin, it won’t stain your regular towels. If necessary, you may use clean towels to lightly dab the tattoo dry. Don’t wipe or scrub your tattoo—simply pat it. After it’s dry, there’s no need to put another bandage back on. The more air-time it gets, the faster it will heal. You can wash your tattoo up to twice a day but if it doesn’t appear to be particularly scummy, stick with once per day. That way, it retains as much ink as possible.

 

First Night of Tattoo Care

How to care for a tattoo changes depending on the time. When it’s time to sleep, you want to take certain precautions. On the first night after getting your tattoo, your tattoo will ooze out clear plasma and extra ink. This is just your body’s natural way of preventing infection but it’s also a good way to ruin sheets and clothing. Wear old clothes to bed, and use old sheets, or else be prepared to have a colorful surprise when you wake up the next day.

 

Try to use soft, non-abrasive sheets and clothing, and avoid touching the tattoo at all. Letting it dry out is very important. If you have a large tattoo on your back, try sleeping on your side with blankets off. It might be a little uncomfortable, but in the long run your care will pay off, both by speeding up your healing process or by saving your sheets from getting a new color!

 

How To Care For A Tattoo 1 - - Tattoo Aftercare Guide

Day 2 to 14 of Tattoo Aftercare

After two or three days, the tattoo starts to dry out. Large flakes will appear, similar to a sunburn. If you pick at these flakes, your body will not be able to absorb as much pigment as it normally would, so avoid scratching, itching, or picking while it’s like this. If you do end up scratching and chipping off some unhealed skin, your tattoo will not be as vibrant. Let the skin flake off naturally. Even if you want to itch and scratch, you have to resist. That being said, don’t wear any tight or abrasive clothing that might brush up against your tattoo and flake off some of that skin. There are various Tattoo AfterCare Kits on the market which will support your skin healing.

 

During the first week of tattoo aftercare, and after your tattoo starts leaking extra ink and plasma, your tattoo remains sensitive. Watch for signs of infection carefully during this stage of healing. If your tattoo still looks swollen and becomes more sensitive than its first few days, then it’s likely fending off an infection. If certain areas of ink look raised compared to the rest of your tattoo—especially common with red inks—then your body might be undergoing an allergic reaction. Both situations require a doctor’s advice on how to proceed. I talk about other side-effects and symptoms in depth later on. If it causes you slight discomfort, a little bit of numbing tattoo cream may help you out.

 

For everyone experiencing normal symptoms (slight tenderness with the appearance of scabs or peeling skin) then use these tips to help your body continue fighting off infection. Avoid dirty towels, clothes, and sheets—even if that ‘dirt’ is from a single use. Never touch your tattoo with unwashed hands, since your hands contain the most bacteria out of any place on your body—except, perhaps, your mouth. So keep your lips off it, too. Keep water off your tattoo as best you can, and stay out of swimming pools, lakes, and rivers! Lastly, washing your tattoo carefully provides the best protection for a new tattoo.

tattoo aftercare 4

 

Soon, your tattoo starts itching like crazy! Instead of itching your tattoo, apply light pressure onto the area with a cool cloth or use a bit of tattoo moisturizer. While your scaled skin tempts you to peel it off, that proves disastrous to your tattoo ink. Scabs and live skin alike could still be attached to the bottom layers of your skin—in other words, where your permanent ink resides. When you pull those portions up, you lose some of that permanent ink. As a result, your healed tattoo looks blotchy, patchy, or bare in some spots…at least, in the worst cases. Avoid it as much as you can!

 

Several ways exist to deal with the relentless itching. First, try using tattoo ointments or lotions. The aftercare kits I included above both contain moisturizers for just this purpose. I also list some stand-alone ointments that work great in a bit. Spread a few drops of moisturizer on the tattooed area and spread it around in a thin layer. When your tattoo starts to itch again, simply apply some more. By placing thin layers of moisturizer on your tattoo, you allow it to breath and speed up healing.

 

On top of using tattoo moisturizer, using a paper towel helps. Place the paper towel over your tattoo and apply light pressure with your hands. The pressure relieves itching without the scratching part.

 

Day 15 to 30 of Tattoo Aftercare

Good news, your tattoo does the bulk of its healing in this stage! Like a sunburn, your skin regenerates within a few weeks and completely heals. At the beginning of this period, you still might have some redness and some flaking, but it will gradually decrease. Redness and soreness should already be gone or soon will be. Continue to moisturize it 2-3 times a day to prevent the skin from drying out. You still might see some flaking, and the drier the skin, the more flaking you’ll have. Keep it moisturized for the first 30 days until you see progress.

 

After waiting a bit, it still might be a bit itchy. Thankfully, you can easily fight that off with lotion. Whatever you do, don’t scratch! I know it sounds like a never-ending mantra, but that’s still an extremely important part of your aftercare routine. Never ever scratch your new tattoo. I know it’s tempting. And I know this urge… fight it! You want to know why? Well, the outer layer of your skin heals first as it’s directly exposed to the air. It’s shielding the subsequent skin layers from the outside world and all the harmful nasty stuff like bacteria out there. So, when you scratch, you feel might feel relieved…but all the armies of bacteria will cheer for you, as you just opened the gate for them to get in.

 

The First 3 Months

Now that we talked about how to care for a tattoo immediately after you get one, let’s talk about what to do after that. How to care for your tattoo is more than just making sure it’s properly cleaned and drying, so let’s talk about extended care. Although you can (and should) repeat the above for a month and have a nice-looking tattoo, there are many things you should avoid for three months while your skin’s deepest layers heal. Here are some things that prevent infection and promote vibrant colors in your tattoo.

  • Don’t expose your tattoo to direct sunlight (even after it heals). Sunlight will fade your tattoo, since the energy of UV rays can actually break up ink particles (which is the same way your skin gets burned). You can learn more about that in my article, The Best Tattoo Sunscreen Products). When sunlight breaks down tattoo ink into smaller pieces, that allows your body to naturally process it and remove it from the whole system. Obviously, that leads to tattoo fading.
  • Work out sessions, along with weight gain, stretch and pull at your skin. In the long-term, this may contort your tattoo design. I highly recommend working your body into an ‘ideal’ shape for you personally before you choose a tattoo.
  • After the scabs fall off, your tattoo won’t look as vibrant as it first did. This is because there are still a few layers of healed skin that haven’t fallen off yet. Within a few months, the last few layers of skin fall off and reveal your final colors. Asking your artist for a touch up during these first few months delays the process and does nothing to help your color.
  • Scratches and cuts on top of your tattoo leave scars and expose your tattoo ink to the world again. To reduce the loss of ink, use tattoo soaps to clean the area where possible. After four months or so, if you still end up with a patch of scar tissue, ask your artist about a touch-up.

 

After 3 Month – Long Term Tattoo Care

Once three months have passed, your tattoo should be completely healed. You can resume your normal life. You can go back to regular daily routines. Do all the sports you did. Do all the activities you like to do. Take care of the tattoo the same way you take care of the rest of your body. You want your ink to look good and stay that way? Live a healthy lifestyle. Whatever is healthy for your skin is also good for your tattoo.

 

Having a bad diet won’t hurt your tattoo, but it will hurt your skin. And guess what happens to everything within that skin? Yep, you’re right. Are you gaining and losing weight quickly and often? Your skin needs to adapt. Your tattoo will, too. Does a sunburn hurt? It will hurt even more when your ink fades because you didn’t protect it from the sun. Is too much alcohol bad for your skin? Yes, it is, and therefore it’s bad for your tattoo.

 

In very short, treat yourself well and your tattoo will shine for years. Time takes its toll on all of us. The colors of your tattoo will fade and its edges will blur. Your skin will lose its elasticity and your new ink will no longer be that perfect masterpiece it is now. By leading a healthy lifestyle, you keep your tattoo pristine and beautiful.

tattoo aftercare 5

 

Common Sense for Tattoo Care

Expanding on long term care, some parts of aftercare fall under common sense. Read this part and memorize it, because this handful of tips keeps you and your tattoo protected more than anything. All of these apply during the healing process itself. If you see friends ignoring or ignorant of any of these bullet points, then please inform them! A little bit of care goes a long way—both in terms of health and in terms of tattoo clarity!

  • Avoid using any oils, glitter, sunblock (unless the product is safe for tattoos), or sand on your tattoo. These can scrape off layers of skin and ink.
  • Don’t wear anything abrasive, and avoid touching your tattoo with cloths, loofahs, and towels. All of these things have an increased risk of infection and reduced color retention.
  • If any excess swelling, puffiness, or redness occurs, consult a doctor right away! This can be a sign of infection or allergic reaction. Our second section goes into more detail about this.
  • Absolutely no alcohol goes on your tattoo! Alcohol will remove the color and may even cause it to bleed.
  • Avoid swimming in pools, lakes, rivers, streams or anywhere at all with water. The only time water should touch your tattoo is sparingly, as you shower or wash it.
  • If your tattoo swells, elevate it. Swelling and bruising are especially common for lower body tattoos, such as ankle or leg tattoos. You can also use an ice pack, as long as your tattoo doesn’t get wet. If the swelling continues for a prolonged time, seek a doctor.
  • Reduce any kind of contact to your tattoo—this includes contact from your own hands! If you want to touch it (which should only be to clean your tattoo), be sure to wash your hands beforehand. Fabrics, cloths, towels, and blankets all have the potential to carry infection, so avoid touching them with your tattoo. Don’t lean on any walls, metal objects, wooden objects, or anything, really. They also have the potential to carry bacteria.
  • Avoid working out—movement and exposure to high-bacteria environments will only hurt your tattoo. If you must work out while your tattoo heals, avoid using any muscle that moves your tattoo. Also avoid touching equipment with your tattoo. Wash your hands thoroughly after exposure to equipment.

Of course, you’re not banned from these activities forever! After about three months, your tattoo should be all soaked in for life. You can resume normal activities and treat this part of your skin like any other. Avoid rubbing it with anything abrasive, such as sand or salt, since that is a natural (albeit painful) way of removing tattoos.

Related Read: The Tattoo Healing Process – All Steps Explained

 

Warning

Tattoo Infections and Reactions

Infection is rare when you get it from a shop and common when you get it from a so-called professional operating from their home. Avoid asking friends or home-run artists for your tattoo. Their equipment is not inspected by a health department and can have any number of infectious material on them. But, even if you go to a professional shop, there’s still a chance of infection due to the nature of tattoos. A large, exposed wound that takes a month to heal is the perfect place for bacteria to thrive. Here’s how you notice it.

 

If your tattoo is still red and swollen a few days after you receive it, it’s time to ask your doctor about it. If there’s any yellow or green puss, run to the doctor. Clear plasma or yellow-orange plasma is normal for the first few days, but dark yellow or green indicates an infection. If the area is hotter than other areas of the body, it means your body is fighting off an ongoing infection.

 

Allergic reactions are uncommon, but possible–especially with red dyes. If you have an allergy to nickel or cheap metal in general, let your artist know ahead of time so that they can ‘test’ the ink on your skin for a reaction. If your skin swells abnormally or only part of your tattoo makes progress with healing, see a doctor about treating your allergic reaction. You should go to a doctor as soon as you notice these signs. Since I am not a doctor, they are the only ones who can properly advise you on how to handle medical situations.

How To Care For A Tattoo 2 - Tattoo Aftercare Guide

 

Tattoo Aftercare F.A.Q.

Before I leave you, I want to answer many of the frequently asked questions about tattoo care I receive. When you first enter the tattoo world, the huge amount of aftercare involved seems daunting. Even during your healing process, new questions pop up all the time. If this still leaves your questions unanswered, go ahead and leave your question in a comment.

 

Do I need tattoo-specific products?

Absolutely! Tattoo-specific products contain no ingredients that harm tattoo ink or provoke infection. Alcohol, petroleum, fragrances, and more prolong healing. They may also lead to infection and allergic reactions. Tattoo products specialize in ‘softer’ antibiotics and ingredients good for all types of skin. That even includes sensitive skin!

 

Is it safe to use normal soap on tattoos?

As a general rule, normal soaps and lotions harm your healing tattoo. A major component of all beauty products, petroleum, creates a barrier that seals your tattoo and prevents your wound from pushing out extra ink, pus, and dead skin cells. Alcohol/hydrogen peroxide attacks the tattoo ink, breaks it down, and erases it. That’s pretty good for fighting infection, but not so good for keeping your tattoo ink intact.Obviously something to avoid!

 

Furthermore, while alcohol is a potent antibacterial agent, it also kills some white blood cells in the process. Normally, that works fine—the body quickly delivers more white blood cells, while bacteria fails to proliferate. However, in the short-term, white blood cells and macrophages play an important role in cementing your tattoo ink. In other words, it packs a double whammy as far as taking out your tattoo ink and harming your tattoo.

 

Why does my new tattoo look gray or faded?

When your skin heals over your tattoo, it forms a thick layer of scar tissue. This makes your tattoo look faded and dull. Black ink looks gray, red ink looks pink, and so on. Over time, the scar tissue fades away and disappears, letting your beautiful tattoo shine through. Normally, this process takes six weeks, but sometimes lasts up to six months. Either way, adding more ink fixes nothing, so just wait patiently.

 

How do I shower with a tattoo?

Can you shower with a tattoo? Yes! Never forego showers for the sake of your tattoo. Try not to hit your tattoo directly with water and only use soaps and shampoos with no alcohol/hydrogen peroxide in the ingredients. If you normally use antibacterial soap when you wash, cover your tattoo with some paper towels and tape until you finish. Although, let’s be honest, the paper towels may not hold up for the full amount of time.

 

How old do I need to be to get a tattoo?

This varies depending on your country, state, province, etc. Generally, minors cannot ink tattoos. Some states allow parents and guardians to sign a permission slip, but artists have the right to turn down younger clients anyways. If you live in such a state, the letter must be signed in person by a legal guardian—not your boss from work, not your distant cousin, and certainly not a friend who happens to be older than 21.

 

Last time my tattoo only peeled. This time it’s scabbing. Is this normal?

Yes, it’s normal. Different sizes, colors, and shapes heal in unique ways. Refer to the previous section for signs of abnormal healing. If one color heals differently relative to the rest of your tattoo, then seek out medical advice.

 

Ink is falling out of my tattoo—what do I do?

First, relax. Second, breathe. Third, relax again. In the first few days of tattoo healing, blood and ink falls away from your tattoo. Naturally, that alarms most people, but your body simply pushes out the excess ink. The ink at the base of your tattoo remains unaffected. Go about your normal business, and try not to stain anything!

 

One color is healing differently than the rest of my tattoo, what does that mean?

This usually reveals an allergic reaction, especially if the color red appears swollen compared to other colors. Some inks use the same compounds as food coloring to produce their color. While it works great for most of the world, people with allergies still have reactions.

 

Can I tattoo over a scar?

Of course! In fact, many artists offer discounts for clients who want a scar covered. Scars occur in all shapes, sizes, and situations. Self-harm, mastectomies, crazy accidents, and more could mar your skin with a permanent marking. Thankfully, tattoo ink does not discriminate. It works the same on all types of skin.

 

How often should I wash my tattoo?

As it heals, wash it twice per day using tattoo soap. Any more poses the risk of waterlogging your tattoo. Any less, and you risk an infection for your tattoo. When your tattoo itches or flakes, stick to tattoo moisturizer, rather than washing again.

 

Should I re-bandage my tattoo?

Please keep your tattoo unsealed after you take off the artist’s wrappings. Leaving your tattoo covered possibly saves it from further infection, but it much more likely imprisons bacteria that got in during the inking process and prevents your body from shedding dead skin cells and plasma. Keep it in the open air and keep it washed—you need not do more to protect your tattoo!

 

My tattoo healed, when can I stop using tattoo soaps and lotions?

Once your tattoo heals, you can shelf your soaps and lotions for the next one. However, I still recommend using moisturizer to keep your skin healthy and sunscreen to protect your tattoo. Certain sunscreens give extra protection against forms of light that damage tattoo ink, so I usually use those. Apply sunscreen whenever you go out!

 

I think my tattoo is infected! Can you help me?

Whenever you question your health, immediately seek the advice of a doctor. Me? I’m not a doctor. I talk all about signs of infections and reactions in the previous section—beyond that, your artist and your doctor will instruct you. Remember that infections and reactions don’t always mean that you lose your tattoo. Your doctor will always do their best to prevent that from happening! So, always seek medical advice when you need it.

 

If you still need a question answered, go ahead and leave it in the comments section. We love to teach and inform when it comes to tattoos! Short of medical emergencies, we know all the answers.

 

Tattoo Aftercare and Tattoo Care Guide Infographic

To make things more streamlined, I created an infographic to guide you through the process. Feel free to use this whenever you need it—whether you want a tattoo, or want to inform your clients! Just let us know when you use it on another site, since we would love to check it out!

Tattoo AfterCare Guide - Tattoo Care

 

Last Word on Tattoo Aftercare

Sometimes, you and your artist can do everything right, and it still leads to infection. Nonetheless, prevention and care is key when it comes to how to take care of your tattoo. So, adhere to the guidelines as closely as possible. On top of infection, tattoo care has other benefits. This tattoo aftercare also helps keep your tattoo stunning and vibrant, even after it heals, so don’t slack off. As always, ask your doctor and tattoo artist for any medical advice you might have. If you think you have a medical emergency, go see a doctor right away!

 

At first, the world of tattoo art seems intimidating. The pain of a tattoo, the permanence of the ink, and the stigma attached to them all complicate things. However, once you get started, you realize that a huge community appreciates this form of body art. From ancient times to its modern boom in popularity, this wonderful art captures and enthralls the hearts of all art lovers. As the perfect way to show your individuality and an excellent way to make a statement, the tattoo serves as a communicative form of art. With the honor of wearing a tattoo comes the duty of caring for a tattoo. Wear your tattoo with pride and care for it every day!

 

As always, thanks for reading!

Sara

 

 

 

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