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A tattoo is more than just a piece of art and a way to assert your personal style. It’s a medical procedure too, 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 those complications and ensure that the tattoo heals properly. Both you and your tattoo 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. The states that do require aftercare instructions often let the artist decide 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.

Cover it up

The artist should apply a thin layer of antibiotic 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 onto your clothes and getting irritated.

Keep the dressing on for as long as your tattoo artist recommends, which may be just a few hours. It’ll help absorb any fluid or excess ink that leaks from the tattoo.

Gently wash the tattoo

After a few hours, you can remove the covering.

First wash your hands with water and soap. Then gently wash the tattoo with warm water and fragrance-free soap. Pat your skin dry with a soft cloth.

Apply a small amount of fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer to the tattoo. You can keep the covering off at this point to let your skin breathe.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows some fatty alcohols, such as cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol, to be used in cosmetic products that are labeled “alcohol-free.” Unlike ethanol, fatty alcohols don’t dry out the skin.

Wait for it to heal

While your tattoo heals, you should:

  • wear sun-protective clothing whenever you go outside
  • call your tattoo artist or doctor if you experience any symptoms of infection or other problems

You shouldn’t:

  • cover your tattoo with sunblock until it’s 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)

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.

Day 1

You’ll come home from the tattoo studio with a bandage or plastic wrap over your tattoo. After a few hours, you can remove it.

You should ask your artist for specifics about how long to wait. Recommendations will vary and may be based on the type and size of your tattoo. Some tattoo artists suggest that you only keep your tattoo covered for 1 or 2 hours.

Once the covering 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 fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer. Leave the covering off so the tattoo can heal.

Days 2 to 3

By now, your tattoo will have a duller, cloudier appearance. This happens as your skin heals. Scabs will start to form.

Wash your tattoo once or twice a day, and apply a fragrance-free and alcohol-free moisturizer.

When you wash, you might notice some ink running into the sink. This is just excess ink that’s 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 the scabs you get when you cut yourself, but they’ll be raised. Don’t pick at the scabs — this can cause scarring.

Keep washing your tattoo once or twice a day. Apply a fragrance-free and alcohol-free 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. Let them come off naturally. Otherwise, you could pull out the ink and leave scars.

At this point, your skin may feel very itchy. Gently rub on a fragrance-free and alcohol-free 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 tattoo 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’ve healed. It may take 3 to 4 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.

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out these bright and vivid diabetes tattoos.

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 the following products, which you can buy online:

For the first day or two, use an ointment like A+D Original Ointment or Aquaphor Healing Ointment or the product recommended by your tattoo artist to help the tattoo heal.

It’s best to avoid products that are 100 percent petroleum-based, like Vaseline. The American Academy of Dermatology says that petroleum-based products can cause the ink to fade.

However, there’s one exception: Authority Tattoo says that Vaseline may be helpful while showering. Because Vaseline is nonporous (watertight), you can apply it to your tattoo before you step into the shower so that it can protect the area from getting sprayed with water.

It’s also been noted that Vaseline may be helpful on healed tattoos or the skin surrounding the tattoo if it’s exceptionally dry.

Just apply a thin layer. Putting on too thick of a layer won’t allow your skin to breathe.

After about 2 days, you can switch to a regular moisturizer. Some products that you can buy online include:

Whatever you choose, make sure it’s fragrance-free and alcohol-free. Also make sure it doesn’t contain additives, such as colored dye, that could dry out your skin.

When properly cared for, your tattoo can be as brilliant as one of these inspiring breast cancer tattoos.

Polynesian people, such as Samoans, have long used coconut oil on their tattoos. They apply it after the tattoo is completed or when it heals. One supposed benefit is that it makes the design shine.

Some websites claim that coconut oil keeps the skin under your tattoo moist and protects against infection. Yet evidence is anecdotal, and there’s no scientific proof that it works.

Check with your doctor before putting coconut oil or any other unproven products on your tattoo.

Dry healing

In a method known as tattoo dry healing, you don’t use any moisturizer as part of your aftercare routine. However, you do follow the other steps, such as avoiding the sun.

Supporters of dry healing believe that one benefit of avoiding moisturizers (which may contain artificial ingredients) is that it helps to eliminate the possibility of skin irritation or allergic reaction. A counterargument is that the lack of moisture leaves you vulnerable to itching.

Ask your tattoo artist whether dry healing may be right for you.

Healthline

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:

Infection

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 bloodborne infection, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, tetanus, or HIV.

There have also been reports of other infections, such as nontuberculous mycobacterial skin infections, being transmitted through tattoos.

Allergic reaction

If you’re sensitive to the ink your artist used, you may develop a red, itchy skin reaction at the site. According to a 2019 study, red dyes are the most likely to cause an allergic reaction.

Research shows that red dyes, along with blue and black dyes, are also more likely to cause nonallergic skin reactions such as photosensitivity.

Scarring

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 3 or 4 months, there are things you can do to prevent the ink from degrading.

Tips for long-term tattoo aftercare

  • Keep it clean. Wash your skin daily with a gentle, fragrance-free soap.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water to keep your skin moisturized.
  • Watch what you wear. Wear SPF clothing so the sun won’t fade your tattoo. Avoid scratchy fabrics, such as wool, which can damage the art.
  • Avoid excess weight gain or loss. Changes in weight could stretch out or distort the tattoo.
Healthline