Proper aftercare can make the difference between a bright and freshly healed tattoo and numerous retouch sessions. Because knowledge is power, I’m going to tell you as much as possible about the healing process and most effective methods of caring for your new ink. Please read through this information carefully and ask as many questions as needed!
It’s up to you…
It’s often said among tattoo artists (usually after a touch up session) that the artist can’t control what happens to a tattoo after it leaves the studio. We do our best during a sitting to ensure that the environment is clean and controlled and the tattoo is delivered properly, but once you take ownership and leave the chair, the rest is up to you.
(On that note— it’s important to keep in mind that aftercare is not just during the healing process, but for the rest of your life!)
Every artist has different recommendations for aftercare.
Some will tell you to do nothing different and leave the tattoo alone. Others will sell you additional products to help with the healing. Some use ice packs, or a “wet healing” technique which keeps a fresh tattoo covered in plastic for the first few days in order to prevent or reduce scabbing. I can’t speak for these systems and methods as I haven’t tested them. The recommendations below are based on both my own firsthand experience in healing dozens of tattoos and on client reports… what worked and what didn’t; the actual results.
There are however a short list of cardinal principles upon which all artists seem to agree:
1. Avoid all scented or fragranced products and those which contain dyes or artificial color.
2. Keep your tattoo clean and protect it as needed to prevent infection.
3. Do not soak.
4. Avoid sun.
The general process…
Think of your new tattoo as a wound— but a wound with very special properties which will go through several phases of healing over the course of a month.
Phase one: sealing and scabbing
In the initial stage of healing, it’s an open wound which needs to be protected from contaminants (germs, dirt, chemicals etc) while the skin heals and seals over. A natural protective scab forms. The tattoo will seem to radiate heat and begins to feel stiff when you move. This stage typically takes two or three days.
Phase two: flaking
Once the top layer (a scab now consisting of pigments, dried plasma, and the outermost skin cells) sets, it dries and begins to shed, flaking off over the course of a few days. Typically flaking begins between days 5 and 7. During this stage it’s normal for the area to become very itchy. In this situation, itchy is good: it’s a sign of healing and regeneration of the skin.
Phase three: regeneration
Once the flaking is complete, the tattoo may still have a dry and milky appearance. This “skim” effect is also normal; you’re seeing a secondary layer of skin… that which used to be below the now-shed top layer. It’s now moving up to be the new epidermis, which means that it will also renew itself as it continues to heal. The area will still be sensitive and may need light moisturizing. Typically this phase occurs between day 7 and day 14. From here to the one month mark, the tattoo pigments will continue to settle into the skin and the layers of skin above will regenerate until the outward appearance matches that of surrounding skin. (Except of course for ink colors…)
At each of these stages your tattoo will need different types of care. Read on…
After your tattoo is done, leave the bandage on at least 2-4 hours. If you are not going to be home or somewhere you can clean it properly, it’s okay to leave it on a bit longer, but avoid wearing it longer than 8 to 10 hours. (Ask for an extra bandage if you know that you will be out for a while; you can always change it yourself if need be.)
Wash your own hands well before removing the bandage and doing a first cleaning of your new tattoo.
Remove dried fluids and lingering residue by washing gently with cold water and a mild antibacterial soap. (Not only does cold water feel good on burning skin, it helps tighten pores and constricts your capillaries, which can keep more ink under the skin.)
Pat away any excess water with a paper towel. Let the tattoo air dry and “breathe” for twenty minutes to an hour. The area may feel hot, like a sunburn; this is normal.
For the first two or three days, you will be washing the tattoo area in this manner twice a day. After each washing you may want to apply a thin coat of antibiotic ointment. This is precautionary, to prevent infection. (If you have a normal healthy immune system and live/work in a relatively clean environment, you can also opt to moisturize lightly 2-3 times daily instead.)
It’s important to choose your antibiotic ointment carefully and avoid any with “excess” ingredients (pain relief formulas, dyes, fragrances, etc). Some of the most commonly recommended “over the counter” ointments include Baciguent (Bacitracin), Polysporin, Neosporin, and Fougera Triple Antibiotic. There are pros and cons to each. It helps if you have used them before and know your sensitivities. (For example, if you are allergic to Neomycin, use Baciguent or Polysporin instead of Neosporin or Fougera.)
I personally have used both Baciguent and Fougera with consistent success, however know that these are petroleum based and must be used carefully. It’s a good idea to avoid petroleum jelly and/or wax-based products in general. (Your skin needs to breathe, but petroleum and wax-based products do not allow this. Products containing lanolin can be of concern too as some have allergies.) Therefore I only apply ointment when I want the tattoo to have a thin extra coating of protection, such as before going out for the day, or when heading to bed.
Regardless of your product choice, the keywords are apply sparingly and avoid prolonged use. Use a clean paper towel to remove any excess ointment which may be sitting on the skin. While they can help if used sparingly during the first two or three days (while the tattoo is effectively an open wound), discontinue use of any antibiotic ointments once the scab has formed. Prolonged use can clog pores, disrupt the natural flora balance of your skin, and “pull out” pigments by breaking down the scab.
Do not soak.
Avoid pools and swimming or bathing, or any situation where the tattoo might soak in water. Soaking or over-moisturizing a tattoo can cause deep scabbing, which takes out more of the ink pigments when the scabs are shed.
In the shower, use a mild white soap or the same mild antibacterial soap used for daily washings. Wash the tattoo last to ensure any residue from other products is cleared from the area. Again, avoid contact with any fragranced products which could irritate the tattoo.
While saltwater is believed to help heal wounds, and is sometimes used in piercing aftercare, it won’t heal a tattoo properly. The same goes for natural essential oil products intended to have antibacterial action or help speed healing of skin. (Do not assume that because a product is advertised as “natural” or “organic”, it’s automatically safe for use. Applying products containing teatree oil to a fresh tattoo is not recommended, for example; burning and irritation could result.)
After the scab has formed (usually between days 2 and 4), switch from your antibiotic ointment of choice to an unscented moisturizer. Moisturize sparingly 2-3 times daily, or as needed to reduce itching.
It’s recommended to use a light fragrance-free moisturizer such as unscented Lubriderm. (Toronto locals please note, you can pick up travel size bottles of this product at Shoppers for a dollar.) The brand is less important than the contents: unscented forms of Neutrogena, Aveeno, Jergens, Keri, Vaseline Intensive Care or other brands would also be suitable. Just ensure it’s a light, non-greasy, non petroleum or lanolin-based product. It shouldn’t do anything but moisturize: creams designed for wrinkle reduction, makeup removal, toning etc should be avoided. (Oh, and Preparation H is for your anus.)
You will need to assess and adjust how frequently moisturizer is needed. Keep in mind that using moisturizer is mainly being recommended to help control the itching sensation as skin heals. It’s not a required part of the healing process so much as a remedy to help relieve itching, which leads to picking, which leads to ink loss.
As with the ointment, use moisturizer sparingly. Using too much of either can have the same effect as soaking in a tub. Some scabbing is normal, but we don’t want the scabs to stay on too long or get too deep. If that occurs, they take more ink with them when shed. Conversely, if your skin is not dry and itchy, you can reduce the amount of moisturizer used, or skip moisturizing altogether.
Slap, don’t pick. No picking!
A few days after the scab has formed (usually between days 5 & 7) the top “crust” of the tattoo dries and begins to flake off. Let it shed naturally: if you pick off the sections which are still adhered to your skin, you are guaranteed to lose ink.
If the tattoo is in a location which can be covered by clothing, it’s advisable to wear something clean and freshly laundered to bed for the first few nights. (Otherwise the tattoo can pick up fibers and dirt, and you may see prints made by exiting ink and lymph on your bed linens.) For an upper body tattoo, wear a clean cotton shirt to bed for the first night or two. Alternately, apply a sterile non-stick dressing. Once the tattoo has scabbed over and “sealed”, this isn’t a concern.
Wear clean loose fitting clothing over the tattoo area for at least the first two weeks of healing. Tight fitting clothing can rub and remove the scabs, causing loss of ink or infection.
Protect from sun. Keep the tattoo completely covered (no sunscreen) for the first 3-4 weeks as it heals and settles into your skin. After that, whenever possible, keep the tattoo covered or use a sunscreen with a very high SPF (45 or higher). Sun is the main cause of damage and fading to a healed tattoo. (For more information on how this occurs, see this link.)
It should go without saying... but avoiding the sun also means avoiding tanning. If you are a person who likes to tan, you might actually want to consider not getting a tattoo. Repeated exposure to UV radiation will gradually reduce detailed and colorful artwork to fuzzy mush that doesn’t complement you any more than a melanoma would. (For that matter… if you are considering becoming heavily tattooed, be aware that your lifestyle will probably involve some permanent changes in order to maintain your ink. It’s not such a big deal in our sun-conscious age, but it does take a little extra effort to keep covered and/or remember to use high-test sunscreen every day.)
A note on healing and infections...
It’s normal for the tattoo area to become dry and itchy, or sometimes show minor redness or swelling at the site. It’s not normal for a tattoo to continue to bleed, ooze pus, show prolonged or excessive swelling, exhibit a spreading rash, or remain “raw” and unhealed for several weeks.
If you’re concerned that your tattoo may be infected, or have any questions about what to expect during the healing process, please talk to your tattoo artist first. (Of course, if you’re having a severe allergic reaction, contact your doctor!)
Remember, everyone heals differently. These are only general guidelines. Take care of yourself so that you can live a long and happy life with your new ink!