You’ve probably heard the story of the lady who let her tattoo get so infected it looked like moldy bread, or perhaps you’re wondering whether someone really did die after swimming in the ocean with his new tattoo. There’s a sliver of truth behind all tattoo artist horror stories, and I’m here to tell you the 10 scariest things about tattoo aftercare that really happen when things go wrong.
Ranging from unnerving to downright horrifying, here are ten things you need to have memorized as you enter your first stage of tattoo aftercare. Even one little slip can end up with you in the hospital if you don’t recognize what to look out for. Note that these are in no particular order, since all of them can have horrifying consequences. Let’s begin!
1. Swimming After a Tattoo
That story about the man swimming in the ocean and dying because of his tattoo? It’s completely true. Swimming in the ocean after a tattoo opens up your body to all kinds of bacteria and pathogens that are floating around. Stagnant rivers and lakes can be even more dangerous! So don’t hit the beach after your tattoo and play it safe until your tattoo’s nicely healed.
How long after a tattoo can you swim in chlorine? Even swimming with a tattoo after one week is considered unhealthy. Bathing after your tattoo requires special care during the first two stages of tattoo healing, so something full of chemicals that can break down tattoo ink is way out of the question. The ocean is even more dangerous. Stay out of water for six weeks, minimum.
2. Getting a Sunburn
Nothing is worse than getting a sunburn during your initial stages. During stage two of the healing process, you can use tattoo suntan lotions, but before then is impossible. You have to keep the area clean, and the only thing allowed to touch your tattoo is water and soap. What does this have to do with sunburns? Well, your tattoo ink is only permanent because the ink particles are too large for your immune system to deal with. They linger in the same area for the rest of your life…unless something breaks them down. Something like the sun. The sun is the biggest killer of tattoo clarity and color.
While you heal, your tattoo (and skin in general) has no layers of healthy skin protecting it from harmful UV rays. The ink particles break apart easily as you get your sunburn and you end up with a very faded and blurry mess once your tattoo finishes healing. Plus, I imagine a sunburn on top of your tattoo hurts like hell!
3. Using the Wrong Soap
Your tattoo artist will give you very specific directions about washing your new tattoo. If they didn’t, check out our aftercare article to get that solved. When you ignore those directions and use the wrong soap, you can literally wash off your tattoo. In the same way that UV rays break down tattoo ink, alcohol-based soaps will obliterate the ink. Once your skin is healed it’s a non-issue, but without healthy skin to protect the ink, your tattoo is doomed when you use the wrong soap. Artists can also recognize the difference between a tattoo that needs more ink and a soap-damaged tattoo, so don’t expect to be compensated when you mess up your tattoo!
4. Ink Discharge
After you get home and remove the wrapping on your fresh tattoo, a waterfall of blood, plasma, ink, and goop reveals itself. At first, it seems like it was just trapped there—some sort of residue from the inking session itself. But the next day, it’s still leaking ink. There’s no way you didn’t wipe off all of the extra residue. Is your tattoo leaking out?! Thankfully, that isn’t the case. Your skin has many layers, and not all of the ink reaches the prime location for tattoos. Everything that doesn’t make it gets sloughed off, along with extra plasma and scabs. It looks scary as hell, but it’s totally innocuous.
5. Peeling Tattoos
An itchy tattoo can be a symptom of allergic reactions and infection, making it very creepy when it first starts itching like crazy. That fear intensifies when your tattoo starts peeling away in colored chunks of dead skin! Like ink discharge, both of these things are quite normal. Your tattoo will go through an aftercare phase where it just looks like a disaster. If you think it’s itching more than it should be, consult a doctor and read up on tattoo aftercare. Peeling tattoos are generally okay, as long as you let the skin flake off naturally instead of pulling it off.
What’s that? You wanted to rest easy after your long and painful tattoo session? Think again. This point isn’t life-threatening, but it is very annoying and scary if you weren’t expecting it. As you sleep during the first stage of tattoo healing, your tattoo continues to leak out ink and plasma. If you’re not careful, you’ll wake up to sheets that are an absolute bloodbath. And trust me, washing out ink and blood at the same time is very hard unless you have white sheets. That’s why I recommend wearing older clothes and using older sheets as you heal (as long as they are clean). You also want to give it as much air time as possible, so do your best to keep it clear of fabric.
7. Fading Tattoo
At about four weeks into your aftercare process, your tattoo starts to lose its pallor. Literally. It fades and turns gray, causing anyone who watched the progress of your tattoo to freak out. After all, it spilled a bunch of ink out and had some colorful flakes of skin peel off. Could it be that it really did fade? Is it going to disappear after all that effort? I can’t count the number of artists who tell me about clients returning, afraid that their ‘fading’ tattoos would disappear.
It’s definitely a scary part of aftercare…but also a normal part of a healing tattoo! The scarred skin on top of your tattoo will gradually clear, though it will never be quite as bright as the day you got it. After all, your skin was leaking extra ink that had no chance of getting absorbed right after you got your tattoo, so day one will always look more vivid than year one. If it appears to fade in patches rather than an even tint, then you have a problem.
8. Running Out of Numbing Cream
Although unavailable for the first few days of tattoo healing, numbing cream remains an essential part of tattoo aftercare. It gets rid of your new tattoo’s raw feeling and keeps the itching at bay. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, once you run out of numbing cream, it’s game over. You have to deal with all the pain and tenderness on your own for the next few weeks. That’s why you should get numbing cream in quantities that match the size of your tattoo (more info on that here).
9. Allergic Reactions
This scary part of getting a new tattoo can strike anyone randomly, even if your aftercare game is on point. Many artists buy ink based on brand, rather than ingredients, and have no idea what’s inside of them. Since regular food products pose an allergy threat, who knows what’s going on inside an ink bottle. You’ll know right away that you have an allergic reaction when specific colors swell up (red is the most common trigger pigment).
Of course, sometimes the signs are more subtle. Prolonged swelling, a burning sensation that lasts for days, and a fever are also signs of an allergic reaction. Read up on tattoo allergic reactions here and contact a doctor immediately (not tomorrow) if you think something’s up. Sometimes it’s a matter of giving you Benadryl for a few days; other times you need to remove that ink right away before scarring begins.
10. Tattoo Infection
This is the scariest thing that could possibly happen to you during your tattoo aftercare. Without washing your tattoo or keeping yourself healthy, an infection will set in. Places like swimming pools and gyms are rife with bacteria just itching to infect you. When you do end up infected, the results aren’t pretty. The ‘lightest’ form of infection is a bunch of swelling in the area (more than usual) and bright green puss. If you see this, get to a doctor before it gets worse. Next, you’ll see green scabbing that represents dead and rotting tissue.
It sounds worse than it is…but not as bad as it could be without attention. Leave your tattoo to fester, and you’ll see more serious signs of infection. A fever that slowly rises until it’s dangerous, a tattoo so swollen that the design is permanently distorted, and a wound that grows wider by the hour are just a few things you might deal with. If none of this convinced you to see a doctor if you have any of these signs, then this should: any dark, vein-like markings that extend from your tattoo represent a blood infection.
Untreated, this could kill you in hours. Only a doctor can tell you if you’re experiencing an allergic reaction, an infection, or a series of unfortunate coincidences. Regardless, an infection is the scariest thing that can ever happen to you during tattoo aftercare, and it leaves a lasting mark on your tattoo for the rest of your life.
10 Scariest Things About Tattoo Aftercare
As you can see, a lot of things can go wrong during the tattoo aftercare process. That’s why I’ve written not just one, but two articles detailing how to avoid most of these scary things. The only thing I can’t help you with is the whole allergies thing, but consult your artist if you have any qualms about it. They can do a dot test (a single dot to see how your skin reacts to the ink) before proceeding or look into your ingredients.
Anyways, the 10 scariest things about tattoo aftercare are a walk in the park as long as you stay educated about tattoo healing. Recognizing the signs of healing gone wrong and going straight to the doctor prevents the scariest of these things from happening, although I’d say less than 1% of people end up needing medical assistance for their tattoos. Stay safe, be responsible, and make sure to tell any friends interested in tattoos about the 10 scariest things about tattoo aftercare! The inked world is a thriving art community that everyone should be a part of, but being responsible about your body is the first step to joining us.
As always, thanks for reading!