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Frolicking on the beach or at your local pool may seem like the perfect opp to show of some fresh ink, but don’t bust out the swimwear just yet.

You should wait for your tattoo to fully heal — which can take at least 2 to 4 weeks — before swimming in any kind of water.

Giving your tattoo time to heal before swimming is just as important for your health as it is for your new body art.

Here’s what can happen if you swim with a new tattoo that hasn’t fully healed.

Risk of infection

Aside from gentle washing, immersing newly tattooed skin isn’t recommended, mostly because of the risk of infection.

Like with any open wound — which is essentially what a new tattoo is — submerging your tattoo could potentially expose it to harmful bacteria in the water. Infections can range from mild to severe.

Though rare, sepsis and death are a possibility. This was the case for one man who contracted Vibrio vulnificus (also known as the flesh-eating bacteria) after swimming in the Gulf of Mexico with a new tattoo.

The risk may be lower in the heavily chlorinated water of a swimming pool than in open water, like a lake or ocean, but chlorine doesn’t kill all the bacteria.

Damage to your tattoo

Soaking your new tattoo could also cause fading and discoloration. Chlorine and salt water are especially hard on fresh tattoos, because both can leach ink from a tattoo, making the color less vibrant.

Swimming can also dry out your skin and prolong healing, leading to more itching, flaking, and scabbing. This can also cause fading, patchiness, and blurred lines.

Skin irritation

Sure, some skin irritation is to be expected with a new tattoo anyway. And it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as a gnarly infection or damaging your new and pricey art.

But skin irritation can actually contribute to both those risks, not to mention being really uncomfortable.

Newly tattooed skin is already raw and sensitive. Exposing it to chlorine and other chemicals can cause stinging and pain, and may cause irritant contact dermatitis. This happens when chemicals like chlorine penetrate the skin and trigger inflammation.

The result is a red itchy rash that may be accompanied by blistering, open sores, crusting, and swelling — all of which can affect how your tattoo looks down the line.

Knowing if your tattoo is fully healed can be tricky. Your tattoo may look and feel healed within a few days — at least on the surface.

Most tattoo artists consider the tattoo healed within 2–4 weeks, but that can vary with the location and size of the piece. A tattoo can take as long as 6 months to heal completely.

Things like your lifestyle and how diligent you are with aftercare can also impact healing time.

You can consider your tattoo completely healed once it’s no longer red, itchy, scabbing, or flaking.

If you’re not sure, swing by the studio where you had your tattoo done and let a professional check it for you.

If you’re in a jam and have to expose your tattoo to water for some reason, like physical therapy or rehab, here are some actions you can take to help protect your ink.

Apply a waterproof dressing

A waterproof dressing, like Saniderm, can protect your new tattoo if you have to submerge it. They’re available in different size sheets and rolls.

Make sure your tattoo is completely covered. Only apply the bandage right before getting in the water and remove it as soon as you’re done.

Keeping a healing tattoo covered can interfere with the healing process so the less time you do it, the better.

Clean the tattoo as soon as you’re done

Pat your skin dry before removing the bandage to keep the water from running over it. Then, remove the bandage carefully and gently wash the tattoo using mild soap and warm water.

Gently pat your tat dry with a clean paper towel.

So … you went swimming with fresh ink and didn’t take any precautions? Don’t panic. That one case of death mentioned above is obviously concerning, but it’s not a common occurrence.

That said, you’ll want to keep an eye out for any signs of trouble.

Some redness, tenderness, and peeling are normal in the first couple of days after getting a tattoo. But if these things continue or worsen, it could indicate a problem.

See your tattoo artist if you notice signs of tattoo degradation, like bubbling, which happens when a new tattoo stays wet for too long. Fading and scarring are also possible.

Red flags

See a healthcare professional right away if you develop any signs and symptoms of an infection, including:

  • continued or worsening redness
  • redness that’s spreading out from the tattoo
  • skin that feels hot to the touch
  • pain that’s severe or worsening
  • rash or blistering
  • open sores on and around your tattoo
  • smelly discharge or pus from the tattoo
  • bleeding
  • fever
  • chills

Swimming with fresh ink is a no-no for a good reason. Doing it could interfere with your healing process and ruin your tattoo — not to mention increase your chances of getting an infection.

You’re better off avoiding swimming entirely, if possible, and following all your artist’s aftercare instructions.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.