Tattoo Aftercare: How to Care for a New Tattoo
Besides choosing an appropriate tattoo design and scouting out an experienced artist, tattoo aftercare is by far the most important aspect 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 either 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 it’s clear that at least some work is being done to improve tattoo aftercare instructions across the country, there is still much to accomplish when it comes to preventing serious infections and complications from arising in the initial and important tattoo healing stages.
Aftercare for a New Tattoo
- 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.
- 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.
- Pat your tattoo dry after cleaning it. Use a clean paper towel to dry your tattoo by gently patting the area. Do not rub.
- Apply a thin layer of lotion. After cleaning your tattoo, ensure the area is completely dry before applying a very thin layer of your chosen tattoo aftercare lotion to help moisturize and nourish the area
- 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 completely finished scabbing and peeling. Continue to wash the tattoo until this point (usually 2-4 weeks).
- 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.
- Stay away from the sun.
Don’t expose your new tattoo to intense sunlight and don’t apply any sun lotion to the area until it has fully healed.
- 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.
- Continue to look after your tattoo. Once healed, keep your tattoo well protected from the sun and ensure you continue to moisturize the area regularly. Healthy skin means a healthy-looking tattoo.
Initial Aftercare: The Most Important Stage
Without a doubt, the time in which aftercare is at its most important is directly after getting the tattoo, and right through until about 3 weeks afterward. This is when the top layers of your skin should have completely healed.
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 important stages, check out our in-depth healing stages article here
At the Studio
As previously mentioned, aftercare starts from the moment your tattoo is completed at the studio.
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 type of antibacterial ointment. This may sting a bit. You can read more about reducing tattoo pain here.
Once the artist has finished cleaning the area they will proceed to wrap your tattoo. This is primarily to keep the area protected against bacteria, and also helps to prevent rubbing. The bandaged area should be 99.9% bacteria-free at the time of wrapping thanks to the previous soap/antibacterial cleaning.
The wrapping will most-likely be make made from either a sterile cloth dressing, or a cling film-like plastic material. Either of these materials serve their 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.
Generally, it’s regarded 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 your first night in the tattoo wrap/bandaging to prevent rubbing over the raw area and to stop any fluids that are still oozing from sticking to bedsheets.
Another reason why you may be advised to keep the wrap on for longer periods is tattoo placement. Any tattoos that are likely to rub against other parts of the body may be better to remain wrapped for a night to allow the healing process to begin without any immediate rubbing and irritation.
When the wrapping 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, very gently start to peel 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
This is a very important stage of the aftercare process. The first wash of your tattoo can easily give your skin problems if not done correctly.
After you’ve removed your wrap, your tattoo is likely to be covered in a thick gooey layer of blood, plasma, dead skin cells and ink. The clear plasma is what you will want to clean off most thoroughly, as this is the stuff that will eventually start to set and harden in order to begin the scabbing process.
Before cleaning your tattoo, you will want to clean your hands thoroughly to remove any bacteria present.
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; just 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.
If there are any stuck-on bits of dried blood or ink that refuse to come off with gentle rubbing, leave them as they are – 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 ensure all remaining soap is washed away.
After washing is complete, you can either let your tattoo air-dry, or you can pat it dry with a paper towel. Do not rub or scrub your tattoo with anything, as this can abrade 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 also probably be full of bacteria too, even if it’s ‘fresh’.
Once the area is completely dry, you should apply a specialized ointment/lotion to moisturize the area and help with healing. You will only want a very thin layer to cover the tattoo – your skin needs to breathe in order to heal effectively, and 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-friendly aftercare product called After Inked Tattoo Aftercare Lotion. This stuff works amazingly well during the healing process; not only by keeping your tattoo really 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 because any moisture trapped between your skin and the layer of lotion can cause your scabs to soak up the moisture and swell/become gooey, which will increase the likelihood of them sticking to materials/objects, 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).
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 it’s pressed against the bed, and you will be consciously trying to prevent your tattoo from rubbing against anything. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can really do about this and you will just have to prepare for a few nights of uncomfortable sleeping.
Some people recommend using old/cheap bed sheets for the first few days after getting a tattoo in order to prevent your best sheets from getting all bloody and inky; so if you’re worried about ruining your sheets, consider pulling out an old set.
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).
Another important thing to mention with regard to sleep is that it’s quite common after getting a tattoo to wake up the next morning being stuck to the bedsheets.
If this ever happens to you, do not just pull the sheets away from your skin. This could rip ink out from your tattoo. Instead, you need to 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 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 and plasma, but this is completely normal.
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.
Carry on cleaning your tattoo exactly as you have been for the last several days, washing the area using your fingers with a mild soap, and drying completely before applying a very thin lotion/ointment to keep the area hydrated and moisturized.
Your tattoo is going to start looking slightly dull and cloudy at this point as the scabs start forming over the ink. Don’t worry though, as this stage doesn’t last for too long, and the sharpness will return.
It is absolutely crucial that you do not 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 along with the crusty skin.
Even if a scab looks like it’s ready to come off, or if it’s only slightly still hanging onto the skin, just leave it alone. Don’t do anything that you may instantly regret afterward – it’s always best to play it safe.
If you do pick off a scab, or one accidentally gets pulled off, there is a chance of ink coming out which may result in a patchy looking area, or a pit forming in the skin. These problems will increase the healing times of your tattoo and may require you to go for a touchup at the studio.
Avoid wearing any very tight clothing, or anything that may be able to rub or catch against a scab, potentially pulling it off.
Although most scabbing should only be light, you may have some areas that are thicker than others. This can be expected, especially if the tattoo artist had to go over the same area multiple times.
However, if many/most areas of your tattoo are covered in thick, ugly scabs, this may be the result of 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.
Alternatively, don’t get worried if your tattoo doesn’t look like it’s scabbing at all. Some tattoos will scab extremely lightly, to the point that it may look like nothing is happening (but your tattoo will be healing). This is especially true for very fine tattoos or tattoos that are made up of a very light color pallet, like white ink tattoos.
Also, tattoos can begin to scab before days 4-5. They can even scab after a day or two. This, again, is completely normal and you shouldn’t get worried. Some people will just generally heal faster than others.
Days 6-14: Things are About to Start Getting a Little Itchy…
This part of the tattoo healing process is the part that most people dread. This is mainly due to the intense itching that some people suffer, and also because your tattoo can really 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 begin to peel and flake away.
Your skin is going to become very dry, and in most cases, it’s this dry skin 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 start to see more and more peeling and flaking skin.
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 potentially 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 do find that your tattoo regularly starts to itch quite badly, this is normally 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 completely 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.
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.
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.
You will notice, however, 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, which is contributing to the lack of sharpness, but 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 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 completely sure that your tattoo 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, then 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 a good time to inspect your tattoo closely to ensure there are no blemishes, faded spots, or areas of tattoo blowout. If you find any problems with your tattoo at this point, then contact your tattoo artist so they can give you advice on what to do next.
You Made It!
The month immediately after getting out of the tattoo artist’s chair is definitely going to be the most important 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 happily enjoy your dream tattoo for the rest of your life.