Sure, tattoo artists have to follow precise procedures to limit blood borne pathogens, it’s what they’re licensed to do! However, when it comes to tattoo aftercare, ultimately each artist is responsible for their client’s ultimate safety and satisfaction.
It’s a good reason as to why most tattoo aftercare tips and advice tends to greatly vary shop by shop.
The truth is, not everyone agrees 100% on what works to heal a tattoo properly and what doesn’t. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s still the issue of certain tattoo professionals giving out advice that’s simply outdated.
However, at least there is one thing we can all agree on: All tattoos are skin abrasions with lots of blood, plasma and ink oozing it’s way on out!
For the first day or two, everyone experiences this process universally.
A science and fact-based approach to tattoo aftercare
Determined to uncover the truth, I set out to put together a definitive after care guide that you can trust.
From industry-leading artists, to scientific findings, dermatologists and countless interviews, I wrote this guide based on facts and first-hand experience.
Over the course of my research, I found a lot of things that were either outdated or simply myths.
Today, I’m going to share them with you.
Just remember, while a new tattoo may be a very specific wound, it’s on different people!
Your body might react differently than another persons.
The tattoo healing process and stages
From the moment you’re bandaged up to the moment you’re 100%, fully healed. The full tattoo healing process can take at least six weeks for most people.
However, don’t worry, usually within two to four weeks you’ll notice your skin going back to normal stage. Just remember your new tattoo is permanent and will last a lifetime! Be patient for the present moment.
The truth is, the process is quite easy when you get down to the basics: Keep it clean, moist and protected. From day one to the last day when you are 100% healed, I’m going to walk you through every single step below. Let’s start with day one, your new bandaging.
Plastic Wrap: An old school and traditional favorite that varies state by state. It’s often used for larger pieces of the body where bandages may be a challenge.
Under that plastic wrap creates an occlusive seal which prevents air from getting in and out. In return, all of your bodily fluids will pool together on the surface of your skin. When this happens, the body temperature will often rise to around 103 degrees. At this temperature, it creates the ideal breeding ground for unhealthy bacteria growth.
However, it should be noted that as the pool of body fluids builds up, they often will leak out the bottom of the plastic wrap. If you were to put a paper towel in there, it would be ineffective at relieving the oozing and reducing the temperature.
On the plus side, it’s see-through which means you don’t have to remove it to show friends and family your new ink. Not to mention, it won’t stick to your new tattoo.
All in all, plastic wraps are not the end of the world. Don’t worry if you get one, many do! Sure, it may not be as ideal as a bandage, but to the testament of myself and many others, the end result can be just as positive.
Bandages: Your other choice of protection. Ensure your tattoo artist uses medical tape to secure the bandage! If you have allergies to adhesives you may substitute other appropriate taping options.
Tattoo care instructions 101
1. Remove the bandage:
Wait a minimum of 4 to 5 hours before taking off your initial bandage.
Again, that is a minimum! On average, 8 hours is ideal. Understand that the longer you can hold off, the better you will be. Just remember to remove your bandage before you reach 24 hours.
2. Washing your new tattoo:
After removing your bandage, you’ll want to wash with hot water; the hotter the better. No, this will not be an enjoyable process but it’s critical.
The key here is to loosen up any dried lymph and coagulated blood. Note the most important word here: “Loosen”.
Do so with your finger tips and soapy water. Know that the shower is perfectly acceptable, but you can also hand wash the area over an empty tub too. If you do decided to take a shower, limit the time spent to a minimum; no more than ten minutes. Don’t be there in too long! In any event, avoid getting your new tattoo soaked or drenched. That means no bath tubs, pools, hot tubs, etc. Even if it’s a chlorinated pool, avoid it!
Never use a washcloth or sponge! Ensure you wash thoroughly and slightly aggressively to ensure you have removed all the dried lymph and coagulated blood. Understand, that if you fail to remove these, you can set yourself up for a scabbing and a rougher healing process.
Remember to use the right soap! There have been studies that show antibacterial soap as truly being ineffective at limiting bacteria, but I still recommend them for a reason. Often normal bars of soap will be loaded with fragrances and lotions among other things.
Aim for a soap/cleanser such as Hibiclens, an antiseptic antibacterial cleanse. You can also use Dial, popular the clear anti-bacterial soap. Again, just ensure its fragrance/scent-free. For some men, Dove and Ivory soap will fare just fine, though, my advice is more on the cautious side.
Now, some recommend using cold water to “close your pores” after washing. This is incorrect and a complete myth! Understand that hot water helps to loosen build up inside the pores, not expand the pores themselves. Cold water on the other hand, doesn’t nothing to seal, shrink or close your pores. It just doesn’t work like that.
Considerations: Before letting your hands touch your tattoo, deep clean them! Don’t just wash them for five seconds. Get soap everywhere into the knuckles, palm, fingertips, etc. Make sure your fingernails are spotless too!
Remember to avoid long showers and baths for at least two weeks.
Pat dry with a towel or soft wash cloth. You can also use a paper towel as well. The overall key here is to be gentle, don’t scrub! Never use an old towel that’s lying around, ensure it’s clean.
4. Aftercare Ointment
Once dry, you can now proceed to apply a thin film of ointment to your new tattoo. You’ll want to do so with a great occlusive like Tattoo Goo, Aquaphor or Bepanthen, or Vitamin A and D. Do so, twice per day.
Now, some men have asked me if Neosportin or Bacitracin is appropriate. My advice is to always avoid Neosportin, while Bacitracin can often be safer alternative. In general, if you don’t need Bacitracin, don’t use it!
The truth is, numerous men had to make trips to the hospital due to toxic reactions from Neosportin. For some, their body can’t handle it, making for a fatal situation within only a few days. Remember, the last thing you want to do is to potentially put yourself in the hospital where there are gobs of bacteria!
Yet, one of the most important things to consider is the amount of ointment you apply. Do not coat your new tattoo like you are applying a thick coat of paint. Only apply enough for the tattoo to absorb; this means an ultra-light surface coat. Should you notice it becoming shiny and runny dab the excessive amount off with a towel.
Once you’ve finished, do not re-cover with your tattoo with a new bandage.
Considerations: If you absolutely must, use hydrocortisone cream very sparingly and only for a short period time to treat extra troublesome cases of inflammation. While it’s better to use an anti-itch lotion, hydrocortisone cream can greatly help in extreme cases of itchiness.
The reason why some tattoo artists will advise you not to use ointments is to reduce the risk of allergic reactions. Typically these allergies showcase themselves with tiny red bumps around your new tattoo. If this occurs, stop using the ointment and re-wash your tattoo.
4. Keep your tattoo clean
A clean tattoo is more than vital for a healthy healing process, it’s critical!
Repeat the process above every couple of hours, for the next three days. I am going to say it again, 3 days! This means wash, dry and apply ointment.
After those three days have passed, you will want to start washing two to three times per day. Now is the time to also stop applying ointment and switch to lotion/moisturizer.
5. Lotion and moisturizers for tattoos
Apply tiny dabs of skin lotion or moisturizer to your tattoo as needed, but not too frequently. If you over apply it, you’ll end up pimples and clogged pores around the new tattoo area.
Ensure the skincare product is fragrance/scent-free and contains no colors. Aim for Cetaphil lotion, Aveeno, Eucerin, Keri, Lubriderm, Curel, Jergens, or Vaseline Intensive Care.
More than often, you’ll need to apply lotion or moisturizer for around twenty five days.
6. Scabbing and Peeling
At this point, if you followed these tattoo care instructions precisely, you won’t notice any scabbing. You will however, notice your skin starting to peel off similar to a bad sunburn. Relax, this is perfectly normal and natural!
Now, chances are you will freak out once you see the colors of tattoo peeling off. Your new tattoo will appear incredibly awful, but again relax, don’t let your eyes fool you!
What’s really happening is the epidermis exfoliating, which means it’s any excess pigment gets carried away. Again don’t worry, your new tattoo is resting safely under the dermis.
Considerations: Under no circumstance should you pick at or scratch your new tattoo! Regardless if the skin is peeling or scabbing. Allow it to naturally fall off on its own. Now, for some men, all of their tattoos will scab! No matter if they follow the proper after care procedure or not. Should this happen to you, most scabs will generally start to come off within two weeks.
7. After Peeling
Once your new tattoo has peeled, you’ll notice a shiny tone and somewhat waxy finish to your skin. This is completely normal.
Go ahead and continue to apply lotion as needed, but only do so when your skin becomes overly dry. Know that at this point, your skin is no longer exposed nor abraded. If your skin feels tight or tense, try applying Cocoa butter or Aquaphor to relieve any discomfort.
7. Completing the healing process
Continue to care for your new tattoo for the next two weeks. Within two to four weeks your skin should adjust back to its normal state. However, you must remember, that a tattoo does not fully heal for at least six weeks!
Also understand that different parts of the body regenerate skin cells faster than others. Take for instance your hands and feet in comparison to the back and ribs.
During that time frame where it is not 100% healed, you’ll want to avoid any exposure to the sun. Know that this is even more important within the first two weeks. The reason why is because your skin has no protection against harmful UV rays that can cause damage.
Never apply sun block to a new tattoo. If you tan while in the healing stages, you’ll affect the vividness of the pigment and colors like white, orange, pink and yellow. Too much exposure and you’ll end up fading the entire tattoo, regardless of color.
Considerations: The amount of time required for your tattoo is dependent on a few things: Your skin, the detail of the artwork, and the overall size of the piece.
7. Post after care
You’re all healed up! Great job.
Remember to apply SPF 50 or higher sunscreen in order to protect your tattoo. It’s true that any tattoo will fade with age, however over the long term you’ll better help protect your investment.
A word on letting your new tattoo breath and dry out
Perhaps one of the biggest myths in tattoo aftercare is to “let your wound breath or dry out”.
The truth is, dry wounds will actually slow down cellular activity and delay healing. When that occurs scabs will form blocking the skin from growing across the wound. Not to mention, you’ll also create an excellent food source for bacteria, and increase the chances of infection.
In contrast, when your new tattoo wound is kept properly moist, you’ll allow healing cells to travel across and close the wound. It’s a lot like dressing prescribed for burns, which not only promotes a healthy moisture but also prevents outside contamination.
In other words, moist wound healing is important! I know the old wives tale may be convincing, but look at responses from Luke Wachewicz, a certified wound specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System, Dermatologic Surgeons Steven Swengel and Andrew Kaufman, among many others. Even plastic surgeons like Norman Baksandeh have said the same.
Considerations: Don’t let “clogged pores” worry you when keeping your new tattoo moist. No, keeping your skin moist won’t pull the ink as some claim.
Special after care for foot tattoos
Friction, avoid it! With any new tattoo on the foot you’ll want to stay away from wearing shoes for at least a minimum of two weeks. In the worse case scenario where you have a job that requires shoes, do yourself a favor and request three days off work. Again, that’s assuming the worst here.
The reason I mention that is because your foot will swell up like a balloon, making it impossible to move around in shoes. Should you end up wearing shoes, wrap your foot in plastic wrap or a bandage and use medical tape to secure.
With that said, the proper way to care for a new foot tattoo starts with wearing sandals. Avoid putting on socks, as not only does it cause rubbing issues, but they’ll also stick to the skin. When that happens you can potentially pull out some of the color.
Remember to avoid prolonged periods of standing on your feet! Give them plenty of time to rest throughout the healing process.
Tattoo aftercare advice to know
Clothing: Avoid wearing tight or restrictive clothing during the tattoo healing process. Do not allow your clothes to rub up again your tattoo! An oversized t-shirt and pair of gym shorts will usually be good choices due to their looseness.
Environment: Don’t put yourself in a dusty or dirty environment. If you are working on a carpentry project and using a belt sander, put it on hold till you fully heal. If you are laying bricks or smashing down drywall, it’s going to be difficult to avoid all the dust!
Exercise and Activity: While healing don’t participate in any strenuous activities. This means avoid lifting weights at the gym, going for a jog around the park, or taking the bicycle for a spin on the road.
Clean your home first: Before getting a tattoo, clean your home first, it’s important! Your clothing, towels, bed sheets and pillows all need to go through a cycle in the wash. If your washer or dryer has a steam clean option, use it to eliminate any lingering bacteria.