After you’ve made the decision to get a tattoo, you’ll probably be eager to show it off, but it may take longer than you think for it to fully heal.

The healing process takes place over four stages, and the length of time it takes for the wound to recover may vary depending on the size of the tattoo, where it is on your body, and your own habits.

This article will go into the stages of tattoo healing, how long it takes, and any signs that can indicate that your tattoo isn’t healing well.

After getting a tattoo, the outer layer of skin (the part you can see) will typically heal within 2 to 3 weeks. While it may look and feel healed, and you may be tempted to slow down on the aftercare, it can take as long as 6 months for the skin below a tattoo to truly heal.

Skin around larger tattoos takes longer to recover and certain factors, like picking at the scabs, not moisturizing, forgoing SPF, or using a lotion with alcohol may slow the process.

Generally speaking, the stages of tattoo healing can be divided into four distinct stages, and the care for your tattoo changes slightly depending on the stage.

Week 1

The first stage lasts from day 1 through about day 6. Your new tattoo will be bandaged for the first few hours, after which it’s considered an open wound. Your body will be responding to injury, and you may notice redness, oozing, slight inflammation or swelling, or a burning sensation.

Week 2

In this stage, you may experience itching and flaking. Flaky skin is nothing to be concerned about — it’s a natural response, and the ink will remain intact, even if it looks like some of it’s coming off.

Try to resist scratching or picking at scabs. A moisturizer recommended by a tattoo artist or doctor can keep the skin around the tattoo hydrated, and it may ease itching.

Weeks 3 and 4

Your tattoo may begin to dry out, and the itchiness should pass. If it doesn’t and redness persists, it could be an early sign of an infected tattoo. Your tattoo may appear less vibrant than expected, but that’s because a layer of dry skin has formed over it.

This will naturally exfoliate itself, revealing the vivid tattoo. Resist the urge to pick or scratch, which could cause scarring.

Months 2 to 6

Itching and redness should have subsided by this point, and your tattoo may look fully healed, though it’s smart to continue with aftercare. Long-term care for a tattoo includes staying hydrated, wearing SPF or sun-protective clothing, and keeping the tattoo clean.

Everyone wants their tattoo to heal quickly, but the reality is that like with any wound, it needs time and care. There are some things you can do to speed up the healing process.

Wear sunscreen

Sunlight can cause your tattoo to fade, and fresh tattoos are especially sensitive to the sun. Cover the tattoo with clothes like long sleeves or pants or a skin care product with SPF.

Don’t re-bandage after you take off the initial dressing

Your tattoo needs to breathe, so once you remove the original bandage — usually it’ll be bandaged in clear plastic or surgical wrap by the artist — it’s best not to cover it. Wrapping it may result in extra moisture and a lack of oxygen, which can cause scabbing and slow healing.

Clean daily

You should use lukewarm — not hot, which may hurt the skin or open the pores, causing ink to draw inward — and sterile water to clean your tattoo at least two to three times a day.

Before you begin, make sure your hands are thoroughly clean using an antibacterial soap. Then, splash water onto the tattoo, follow with fragrance-free and alcohol-free soap, and either let the tattoo air dry or gently dry it with a clean paper towel.

Apply ointment

Your tattoo needs air to heal, so it’s best to skip heavy products like Vaseline unless specifically recommended by your artist.

In the first few days, your artist will likely advise using products with lanolin, petroleum, and vitamins A and D. After a few days, you can switch to a lighter, fragrance-free aftercare moisturizer or even pure coconut oil.

Don’t scratch or pick

Scabbing is a healthy part of the healing process, but picking or scratching at the scab can delay the healing process and may affect the integrity of the tattoo or result in scarring.

Avoid scented products

It’s crucial to avoid scented lotions and soaps on your tattoo, and depending on where your tattoo is located, you may even want to switch to unscented shampoo, conditioner, and bodywash. Fragrances in products can cause a reaction when it comes into contact with tattoo ink.

Aside from the small amount of sterile water used to clean the tattoo, avoid getting the tattoo wet in the shower or bath, and definitely don’t swim for the first 2 weeks.

It’s important to know the signs that your tattoo isn’t healing properly or has become infected. Symptoms of improper healing include:

  • Fever or chills. A fever may indicate that your tattoo has become infected, and you should see a doctor right away.
  • Prolonged redness. All tattoos will be somewhat red for a few days after the procedure, but if the redness doesn’t subside, it’s a sign that your tattoo isn’t healing well.
  • Oozing fluid. If fluid or pus is still coming out from your tattoo after 2 or 3 days, it may be infected. See a doctor.
  • Swollen, puffy skin. It’s normal for the tattoo to be raised for a few days, but the surrounding skin shouldn’t be puffy. This may indicate that you’re allergic to the ink.
  • Severe itching or hives. Itchy tattoos can also be a sign that your body is allergic to the ink. The allergic reaction to a tattoo can happen right after, or as much as several years after getting the tattoo.
  • Scarring. Your tattoo will scab over because it’s a wound, but a properly healed tattoo shouldn’t scar. Signs of scarring include raised, puffy skin, redness that doesn’t fade, distorted colors within the tattoo, or pitted skin.

After getting a new tattoo, the outer layer of skin will typically appear healed within 2 to 3 weeks. However, the healing process can take upward of 6 months.

Aftercare, which includes daily cleaning, ointment, or moisturizer, should continue for at least this long to reduce the risk of infection or other complications.