A tattoo is more than just a piece of art and a way to assert your personal style. It’s a medical procedure, because the artist uses a needle to insert the ink underneath your skin. Any time you open the skin, you leave yourself vulnerable to scarring and infections.
Caring for your tattoo can prevent these complications and ensure that it heals properly. Both you and your artist play equal roles in this process. Along with going to a licensed and reputable tattoo artist, you need to take care of your new tattoo at home.
Figuring out how to care for your tattoo can be tricky, though. Many states don’t require their tattoo artists to provide aftercare instructions. And among the 30 states that do require it, the artist often decides which information to provide.
Keep reading for a day-by-day guide to help you care for your tattoo, tips on which products to use, and more.
Aftercare starts as soon as your tattoo is done. The artist should apply a thin layer of petroleum ointment over the tattoo, and then cover the area in a bandage or plastic wrap. This covering prevents bacteria from getting into your skin. It also protects the tattoo from rubbing on your clothes and getting irritated. Keep the dressing on for a few hours. It will help absorb any fluid or excess ink that leaks from the tattoo.
After a few hours, you can remove the bandage. Wash your hands first with lukewarm water and soap. Then gently wash the tattoo with fragrance-free soap and water.
Pat your skin dry with a soft cloth. Apply a small amount of petroleum ointment to the tattoo. You can keep the bandage off at this point to let your skin breathe.
While your tattoo heals, you should:
- wear sun-protective clothing whenever you go outside
- call your tattoo artist or doctor if you have any signs of infection or other problems
- cover your tattoo with sunblock until it has fully healed
- scratch or pick at the tattoo
- wear tight clothing over the tattoo
- go swimming or immerse your body in water (showers are fine)
Aftercare by day
How quickly you heal depends on the size of your tattoo and how intricate it is. Bigger tattoos will stay red and swollen longer, because they cause more trauma to your skin.
You’ll come home from the artist with a bandage over your tattoo. After a few hours, you can remove it. You should ask your artist for specifics about how long to wait.
Once the bandage comes off, you’ll probably notice fluid oozing from the tattoo. This is blood, plasma (the clear part of blood), and some extra ink. It’s normal. Your skin will also be red and sore. It might feel slightly warm to the touch.
With clean hands, wash the tattoo with warm water and a fragrance-free soap. Apply a petroleum ointment. Leave the bandage off so the tattoo can heal.
Days 2 to 3
Your tattoo will have a duller, cloudy appearance by now. This happens as your skin heals. Scabs will start to form.
Wash your tattoo once or twice a day and apply a fragrance- and alcohol-free moisturizer. When you wash, you might notice some ink running into the sink. This is just excess ink that has come up through your skin.
Days 4 to 6
The redness should start to fade. You’ll probably notice some light scabbing over the tattoo. The scabs shouldn’t be as thick as scabs you get when you cut yourself, but they will be raised. Don’t pick at the scabs — this can cause scars.
Keep washing your tattoo once or twice a day. Apply moisturizer.
Days 6 to 14
The scabs have hardened and will begin to flake off. Don’t pick at them or try to pull them off. You could pull out the ink and leave scars.
At this point your skin will feel very itchy. Gently rub on a moisturizer several times a day to relieve the itch.
If your tattoo is still red and swollen at this point, you might have an infection. Go back to your artist or see a doctor.
Days 15 to 30
In this last stage of healing, most of the big flakes will be gone and the scabs should be going away. You might still see some dead skin, but it should eventually clear up too. The tattooed area might still look dry and dull. Keep moisturizing until the skin looks hydrated again.
By the second or third week, the outer layers of skin should have healed. It may take three to four months for the lower layers to completely heal. By the end of your third month, the tattoo should look as bright and vivid as the artist intended.
Always use a mild, fragrance-free soap or a specially formulated tattoo cleanser to clean the area. Your tattoo artist can recommend a tattoo-specific cleanser.
Soap options include:
After about two days, you can switch to a regular moisturizer, such as:
Whatever you choose, make sure it’s fragrance-free and it doesn’t contain additives, such as colored dye, that could dry out your skin.
Polynesian people have long used coconut oil on their tattoos. They apply it after the tattoo heals to make the design shine.
Some websites claim that coconut oil keeps the skin under your tattoo moist and protects against infection. Yet there is no scientific evidence that it works. Check with your doctor before putting coconut oil or any other unproven products on your tattoo.
Side effects and complications
For the first few days after you get your tattoo, your skin may be red, itchy, and sore. You may notice excess ink, along with blood and fluid, leaking from your skin. This is normal.
If you begin experiencing symptoms of any of the following complications, see your doctor:
A tattoo that isn’t properly cared for can get infected. Infected skin will be red, warm, and painful. It may also leak pus.
If the equipment or ink your artist used was contaminated, you could get a blood-borne infection such as hepatitis B or C, tetanus, or HIV. There have also been reports of other infections, like nontuberculous mycobacterial skin infections, being transmitted through tattoos.
If you’re sensitive to the ink your artist used, you may develop a red, itchy skin reaction at the site. Red, green, yellow, and blue dyes are most likely to cause a reaction.
Damage from the needle, or from picking at the tattoo, can cause your body to produce scar tissue. Scars can be permanent.
Once your tattoo has healed, you move into maintenance mode. Though you don’t have to specifically care for it after three or four months, there are things you can do to prevent the ink from degrading.