Tattoo Aftercare: How to Care for a New Tattoo

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 9, 2017
    Last Updated: October 15, 2021

Tattoo aftercare is by far one of the most critical aspects of your tattoo journey.
Post-tattoo care should not be taken lightly, and you will need to know how to take care of a new tattoo as best as you possibly can.
Failing to follow your tattoo artist’s advice could lead to damaging consequences.


Currently, in the United States:

  • Seven states have no regulations whatsoever on tattoos.
  • Six states go as far as licensing tattoo artists but don’t regulate aftercare in any way.
  • Thirty states license tattoo artists and require them to write or verbally instruct their clients on tattoo care.
  • Out of all 50 states, only seven require tattoo artists to provide their clients with aftercare instructions officially mandated by the public health department.

While work is being done to improve tattoo aftercare instructions across the country, there is still much to accomplish to prevent serious complications from arising during the initial and vital tattoo healing stages.

Aftercare for a New Tattoo

  1. Leave your bandage/wrap on until told by your artist. While some artists may ask you to leave your bandage on for only an hour, others may ask you to keep it on for a whole day. Your tattoo artist knows which length of time is best for you and your ink, so ensure you listen to their advice.
  2. Wash your tattoo well after removing the bandage/wrap. Wash your tattoo thoroughly (but carefully) using warm water and an unscented and alcohol-free soap to remove any excess dried blood and plasma.
  3. Pat your tattoo dry after cleaning it. Use a clean paper towel to dry your tattoo by gently patting the area. Do not rub.
  4. Apply a thin layer of lotion. After cleaning your tattoo, ensure the area is completely dry before applying a thin layer of your chosen tattoo aftercare lotion to help moisturize and nourish the area
  5. Repeat the cleaning process until the tattoo is fully healed. Remember that your tattoo isn’t completely safe from germs and bacteria until it has finished scabbing and peeling. Continue to wash the tattoo until this point (usually 2-4 weeks).
  6. Don’t pick and pull at the flaking/scabbing skin. Picking away at your healing tattoo can delay healing, cause fading, and increase the chances of infection.
  7. Stay away from the sun. Don’t expose your new tattoo to intense sunlight, and don’t apply sun lotion to the area until it has fully healed.
  8. Stay away from water. All bodies of water can contain nasty bacteria that can ruin a new tattoo if you’re not careful. Stick to short showers until your skin has fully healed, and don’t go swimming.
  9. Continue to look after your tattoo. Once healed, keep your tattoo well protected from the sun and ensure you regularly moisturize the area. Healthy skin means a healthy-looking tattoo.

Initial Aftercare: The Most Important Stage

Without a doubt, tattoo aftercare is most significant directly after getting the tattoo and right through until about three weeks afterward. This is when the top layers of your skin should have healed entirely.

This time frame is when the risk of infection is at its greatest and is also when a tattoo’s appearance can get easily ruined through not following tattoo aftercare instructions properly.

If you’re interested in each of the crucial stages, check out our in-depth healing stages article here.

At the Studio

Tattoo aftercare starts from the moment your tattoo artist has inserted their last piece of ink.

Cleaning and Wrapping

Once your tattoo artist is happy with their work, they will gently wipe the area clean with mild soap, water, and most likely some antibacterial ointment. This may sting a bit.

Once the artist has finished cleaning the area, they will proceed to wrap your tattoo. This is primarily to keep the site protected against bacteria and also helps to prevent rubbing. The area should be 99.9% bacteria-free at the time of wrapping, thanks to the previous soap/antibacterial cleaning.

A newly wrapped tattoo

The wrapping will likely be made from a sterile cloth dressing or a cling film-like plastic material. Either of these serves the purpose effectively, so don’t worry if you get one or the other; the choice usually comes down to the personal preference of what the tattoo artist prefers the most.

How to Care for a Tattoo on the First Day

Remove The Bandage

How long you should keep the wrapping on your new tattoo varies a lot. Tattoo artists can recommend 2 hours, 24 hours, and anywhere in-between.

Disclaimer

Please be aware that there are many different wrapping methods. Many tattoo artists use their own specific wrapping techniques and will advise of their own particular lengths of time for a tattoo to be wrapped.

Just because one wrapping method is popular, it doesn’t mean that other ways are wrong. Always follow your artist’s advice; they are the ones who know your specific tattoo best. I have designed this section to give you a general idea of what the wrapping stage entails.

It’s generally safe for you to remove the bandage after 2-3 hours as long as you’re able to clean your tattoo immediately after removal. After a couple of hours of wrapping, your tattoo should have stopped oozing so heavily (although it may continue to ooze slightly over the next couple of days).

On the other hand, some artists recommend you sleep in the tattoo wrap/bandaging for the first night to prevent rubbing over the raw area and to stop any fluids that are still oozing from sticking to bedsheets.

Another reason why your tattoo artist may advise you to keep the wrap on for more extended periods is the tattoo placement. It can be beneficial for tattoos that are likely to rub against other body parts to remain wrapped for a night to allow the healing process to begin without any immediate irritation.

Wrapped sleeve

When the time advised by your tattoo artist has passed, you’re finally able to remove your wrap and present your brand-new piece of art to the world.

Gently remove the wrap by undoing or carefully cutting through the medical tape used by your tattoo artist to stick it to your skin. If your wrap is plastic, gently peel the material away from your skin, it shouldn’t stick at all.

If you had a cloth bandage applied to your tattoo, gently start peeling the material away from the skin. If you begin to feel any pulling or sticking whatsoever, run some lukewarm water and pour it over the bandage until it’s soaked enough to be pulled away from the skin with ease. Depending on the location and size, removing it in the shower may work for you.

Initial Clean: Instructions for your First Wash

Cleaning is a crucial stage of the aftercare process. The first tattoo wash can easily present problems if performed incorrectly.

After you’ve removed the wrap, your tattoo is likely to be covered in a thick gooey layer of blood, clear plasma, dead skin cells, and ink. It would help to thoroughly clean the plasma away, as this will eventually start to set and harden to begin the scabbing process.

Although you certainly do want your tattoo to scab (and it will), a heavy layer of plasma left over the area will cause your skin to scab more substantially than is required, making your tattoo look much more unsightly during the healing process. Heavy scabbing also increases the probability of getting one torn off, which will raise the risk of infection.

Before cleaning your tattoo, wash your hands thoroughly to remove any bacteria present.

Cupping Water

Proceed to gently cup lukewarm water over the tattoo, wetting the area with your palm and fingers, not a rough/dirty washcloth.

Ensure the water is not overly hot, as the heat/steam can open up the recently inked pores in your skin, potentially allowing ink to leach out of the area, making your tattoo appear patchy.
Your tattoo is likely to be red and sore at this point, so it may be relatively painful to wash this area; suck it up and try your best!

Once the area is wet, rub a good amount of clear/fragrance-free mild antibacterial soap over the wound and proceed to try to get all of the gooey and dried bits of blood and ink off of the surface.
Always check the ingredients of the soap before you rub it over your tattoo – if it contains any artificial fragrances or alcohol, do not use it. Fragrances and alcohol can burn the sensitive area and dry the skin out.

Don’t Worry!

It is entirely normal to see flakes of ink coming off as you wash or dry your tattoo.

A good artist will pack the area with as much ink as possible, and some ink will naturally get trapped in the upper layers of skin and will continue to leak out slightly over the next week or two as you wash and pat the area dry.

If any stuck-on bits of dried blood or ink refuse to come off with gentle rubbing, leave them alone. They will fall off in the coming washes. Don’t force them off as this could cause damage to both your skin and the artwork.

After a thorough but gentle cleansing of the area with soap, cup some more lukewarm water over the skin to wash off any remaining soap.

After cleaning is complete, you can let your tattoo air-dry or pat it dry with a paper towel. Do not rub or scrub your tattoo with anything, as this can irritate the delicate, healing surface. Always pat dry.

Try not to use a fabric cloth/towel, as pieces of fabric can come off and stick to the area. A thick cloth will probably contain bacteria too, even if it’s ‘fresh.’

Once the area is completely dry, apply a suitable ointment or lotion to the area to help with moisturization. Only a thin layer is required as your skin needs to breathe to heal effectively. A heavy layer of lotion will prevent this from happening.

You can choose specially formulated tattoo healing products or completely natural ingredients such as coconut oil. Stay away from any products that contain harsh chemicals or artificial scents/colors.

The best tattoo lotion I’ve ever personally used is a vegan aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process, not only by keeping your tattoo well hydrated but also by soothing any annoying itching and irritation. When using it from the very start of the healing process, this lotion will help to decrease tattoo healing times and work towards eliminating any lingering dryness and scabbing.

You must ensure the area is completely dry before adding an ointment or lotion to the tattooed skin. Any moisture trapped between your skin and the layer of lotion can cause thick scabs to soak up moisture and swell or become gooey. This will increase the likelihood of them sticking to foreign materials and being pulled off.

The Rest of Day One

Your tattoo will likely be very sore for the rest of the day (and for the next few days). It will probably look red and swollen, and the area will also likely feel warm to the touch due to the increased blood flow to the wound (your body’s way of aiding healing by sending larger amounts of oxygenated blood and nutrients to the area).

A new tattoo still looking red and sore

The above is all completely normal for the first several days, especially if the tattoo is a larger piece or if the tattoo artist had to go over the same areas multiple times for shading.

Depending on where the tattoo is on your body, your first few nights of sleep will probably be rough. Your tattoo will be sore if anything touches or rubs against it. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about this, and you will simply have to prepare for a few nights of uncomfortable sleeping.

Ideally, it would help to use old or cheap bedsheets for the first few nights to prevent your best sheets from getting covered in blood and ink.

Some people even resort to wearing gloves at night to stop them from scratching their tattoo in their sleep if it begins to itch (which could also probably help if you have bed bugs).

It’s also common to wake up with your skin stuck to the bedsheets on the morning after getting tattooed. If this ever happens to you, do not tug the sheets away from your skin. This could rip ink from your tattoo. Instead, soak the stuck area with warm water until the sheets peel away easily. If you need to drag your sheets into the shower with you to do this, then so be it.

Days 2-3: Continued Soreness and Rawness

For the next couple of days, your tattoo will likely look and feel the same as it did on day one. Redness and swelling will have probably gone down slightly, but it will probably still look and feel sore for the next several days (and will possibly remain so for up to about a week).

The tattoo could still be oozing small amounts of ink, blood, plasma, but this is entirely normal.

Warning

Although your tattoo will likely still be sore and red for up to about a week, if the soreness or redness does not start to ease (or continues to get worse), then you should proceed to get checked by a doctor to make sure there is no infection present.

The area could also feel slightly raised above the skin and look bruised or swollen, but this is nothing to worry about.

Sleeping will likely still be quite uncomfortable depending on tattoo size and placement, but with each day that passes, your comfort levels should slowly start to increase again.

Making sure your tattoo is clean is still extremely important at this stage. You will likely start to see some very light scabs forming over your tattoo at around day three, but your skin is still essentially an open wound at this point, and you will need to ensure the area stays bacteria-free as best as possible.

Days 4-5: Let the Scabbing Commence

At this point, you’re going to see scabs popping up all over your tattoo. As mentioned previously, this tattoo scabbing should only be a light layer of crusty skin covering all of the inked areas, as long as you were able to wash away most of the oozy plasma in the first couple of days.

Heavy Scabbing
This tattoo is scabbing quite heavily, so will probably peel away in larger chunks

Continue cleaning your tattoo precisely as you have been for the last several days, washing the area using your fingers with a mild soap. Dry it completely before applying a very thin lotion/ointment to keep the site hydrated.

Your tattoo might start looking slightly dull and cloudy at this point as scabs start forming over the ink. Don’t worry, though, as this stage doesn’t last for long, and the sharpness will return.

You definitely mustn’t pick or pull at any of the forming scabs. At this stage of the tattoo healing process, the scabs will not yet be ready to come off, and by picking at them, you risk pulling ink out.

Even if a scab looks ready to come off, or if it’s only slightly hanging onto the skin, leave it alone. Don’t do anything you may instantly regret. It’s always best to play it safe.

If you do pick a scab, or one accidentally gets pulled off, there is a chance of ink coming out, resulting in a patchy-looking area or a pit forming in the skin. These problems will increase healing times and may require you to go for a touch-up at the studio.

Cracking ink
Tattoo cracking and dryness

Avoid wearing tight clothing or anything that could rub or catch against a scab, potentially pulling it off.

Although most scabbing should be light, some areas may be thicker than others. This is to be expected, especially if the tattoo artist had to go over the same area multiple times.

However, if many areas of your tattoo are covered in thick, ugly scabs, this may result from the tattoo artist being too rough and pressing the needle deeper than it needed to go. Go back to the artist if you are concerned.

On the other hand, don’t worry if your tattoo doesn’t look like it’s scabbing at all. Some tattoos scab exceptionally lightly, and it may look like nothing is happening. This is especially true for very fine tattoos or tattoos made up of a very light color pallet, like white ink tattoos.

Finally, tattoos can begin to scab before days 4-5. They can even scab after a single day. This is not a problem, and some people just generally heal faster than others. 

Days 6-14: Things are About to Start Getting a Little Itchy…

This is the part of the healing process that most people dread due to the intense itching that some people suffer, and also because your tattoo can look quite dreadful for a few days as it begins to peel and flake.

As you reach roughly day six (give or take a day), your light scabbing should be well-formed and covering the whole area. As the scabs and old pieces of skin begin to reach maturity, they will now start to peel and flake away.

Your skin will become very dry, and in most cases, it’s this dryness that brings on the itching that so many people can’t stand.

Your tattoo will start to look a little dry at first, and as the days go by, you will begin to see more and more peeling and flaking skin.

Peeling Tattoo
A peeling tattoo

Although it’s going to be very tempting to pick at the peeling skin, do not pull any off or otherwise mess with it. Although the flaking skin only appears to be hanging on very slightly, it’s still attached enough to be able to pull some ink away with it.

If you do begin to itch, do not scratch your tattoo. Scratching the healing area not only pulls away scabs and skin prematurely, which can draw out ink in the process, but the bacteria on/under your fingernails can cause an infection around the area, too.

If you find that your tattoo regularly starts to itch quite badly, this is usually a sign that the skin is becoming too dry. Once your skin starts to peel, this is the perfect time to find a great moisturizing lotion to apply to the area. Many others, including myself, find instant relief after rubbing a quality lotion into the tattoo.

As your skin reaches the peeling stage, you’re going to want to moisturize often. As long as you moisturize after each wash and before bed, this should be enough to keep the area well-hydrated.

You can either use a general skin-sensitive moisturizer, a specialized tattooing lotion, or even a wholly organic and natural product such as coconut oil or cocoa butter to try to soothe your new tattoo and to promote healthy and quick healing.

flakes of ink
Tattoos can peel a lot while being washed

Unfortunately, your skin is going to look very unsightly for a few days as the top layer of damaged skin sheds in preparation for the brand-new layers below. Your tattoo will look dull, scaly, flaky, and dry – but as mentioned, this only lasts for a few days.

Top Tip

If you’re going out with your tattoo on show, and it’s looking at its absolute worst as it’s peeling away, applying a thin layer of lotion should dampen the loose skin, causing it to stick down and look much nicer than it does when it’s dry and hard. Your tattoo should look marginally better for the next few hours using this trick.

You will notice that as time goes by, the more you wash your tattoo, the more flakes that will fall off, and as soon as very loose areas begin to come off, you will start to see glimpses of a much clearer, sharper tattoo breaking through from beneath.

Days 15-30: Nearly There

At this point, your tattoo should have largely completed peeling, apart from the odd small areas of flaky/dry skin.

Your tattoo should no longer be red or sore (and if it is, it should be subsiding every day). Any raised areas should be slowly flattening to the point where you cannot tell where the tattooed parts are compared to your un-inked skin when running your fingers over the area.

However, you will notice that your tattoo will likely still look a little dull and scaly, and it will continue to look and feel slightly dry, so continue moisturizing 2-3 times a day.

There is typically still a very thin layer of dead skin covering the area at this stage, contributing to the lack of sharpness. Luckily, this dead skin will gradually flake away over the next 4-8 weeks. The flaking will be extremely light and will be nowhere near as bad as the initial peeling phase.

Continue to wash your tattoo every day, up until the 1-month mark. Your tattoo may not be as prone to infection as it was in the first couple of weeks, but it’s best to be entirely sure that your tattoo is clean and healthy.

The best method of determining when you’re able to shave the hair over your tattoo again is to close your eyes and run your fingers over the area. If you cannot feel any raised or bumpy areas, you should now be fine to shave. If it’s still a little raised or bumpy, give it another week or two and try the test again.

This is also an excellent time to inspect your tattoo closely to ensure no blemishes, faded spots, or areas of tattoo blowout are present. If you find any problems with your tattoo at this point, contact your tattoo artist to give you advice on what to do next. 

You Made It!

The month after getting inked is going to be the most critical time for your tattoo, and you’re going to be wanting to do everything in your power to ensure the area heals as perfectly as possible.

Once you’re past this point, it’s usually plain sailing, and you can finally enjoy your dream tattoo for the rest of your life.