3 Stages Of The Tattoo Healing Process
Each and every new tattoo goes through a very important healing process. This process can normally be split up into about three different stages; and those stages can be split up further day-by-day.
Take a look through our guide to see exactly what to expect during your very own tattoo healing process.
Like any other type of open wound inflicted on the body, tattooed skin must protect itself from harmful outside bacteria, and regenerate itself back to full health after any damage has been done.
This regeneration is what a tattoo goes through as it heals, right up to the point where the skin is back to how it was before the tattoo, minus the small fact that it’s now filled up with thousands of tiny pigments of ink.
Utmost care is paramount throughout the entire recovery window.
Tattoo Healing Process
The visible part of your tattoo will gradually heal over four to six weeks. However, the deeper layers of skin will continue to heal at a slower rate throughout the next couple of months. This timeline will vary depending on style and size, and artist technique.
The more careful you are with following your aftercare instructions during the early days, the quicker your tattoo will heal; allowing you to resume regular daily activities faster, and without causing any further damage to the area.
1. Stage One (Days 1-6) – Oozing, swelling and redness that gradually gets better each day. Scabbing begins to form over the area.
2. Stage Two (Days 7-14) – Itching and flaking begins, and this continues until all layers of dead skin and scabs have fallen away.
3. Stage Three (Days 15-30) – Tattoo looks fully healed but may appear slightly cloudy for a few weeks. Deeper layers of skin are still repairing, so continue to carefully look after your tattoo.
Stage One – Oozing and Soreness
This first stage of healing begins as soon as you get off the tattoo artist’s chair. The tattooed area will now be a large open wound, and the skin will begin producing plasma straight away to begin the clotting and scabbing process.
At this point, your tattoo artist will likely clean the area with an antibacterial soap and proceed to bandage/wrap the tattoo at the studio for added protection against bacteria until you get home.
All tattoo artists have their own approach to wrapping, but lots of them advise to keep the bandage/wrap on for 12-24 hours. Wrapping can be made of plastic, bandage, or special second skin.
Once the bandage has been carefully removed, it’s quite likely that your tattooed skin will be weeping and oozing with blood, plasma, lymphatic fluid and ink. This is completely acceptable, and is the body’s way of attempting to repair itself.
At this point (which will either be later on in the day of your sitting, or the next day), you will want to very gently wash away as much blood/ink/gooey plasma as you can.
The best way to do this is to use warm water and sensitive fragrance-free soap, and applying it using circular motions with your clean fingers. Always ensure the water isn’t too hot, as this could cause further damage to the wound.
It’s also important not to use any rough washcloths or towels as these could pull off any drying scabs and cause delays as the tattoo heals. To keep the tattoo clean, refrain from using dirty towels on the area.
More on how to clean a new tattoo here, or watch the video below:
At this point in the healing process, your tattoo is going to be very sore for several days, especially if it’s a big piece. The feeling can be likened to moderate-to-severe sunburn.
Your whole body may feel slightly run-down for a couple of days, too. You may feel as though you’re suffering from mild flu. Again, this usually only occurs if you’ve had a large tattoo done over a multi-hour session. This is your body’s way of dealing with the recent trauma.
The tattooed area will feel warm to the touch for a few days. If the warmness hangs around for more than a week, go and see a doctor to ensure there isn’t an infection present.
Along with the soreness and warmth, the tattooed area will be red, probably raised above the skin slightly, and potentially bruised due to small amounts of blood pooling beneath the top layers of skin.
Bruising is normally kept to a minimum as long as the tattoo artist wasn’t too rough and the needle wasn’t forced too deep; though you can also expect some swelling and tenderness on areas where the needle had to pass over several times (usually on shading and darker areas).
All of the above reactions are completely natural and are to be expected to at least some extent during the first stage of the tattoo healing process.
Having said that; if you begin to experience any extreme bruising or redness around your tattoo, especially if it’s been a few days since getting it done, go and see a doctor just to be safe. Redness and/or bruising around the tattoo that is getting worse instead of improving can be the sign of a tattoo infection setting in.
Towards the end of this stage, you will start to see the formation of scabbing.
As previously mentioned, as long as you’re taking care of clearing away plasma and excess ink from the area, the scabbing shouldn’t be too thick and heavy.
Your tattoo will start to look more dull and cloudy than it initially did, and this is normal. The sharpness will come back slowly as the tattoo heals. It’s worth noting that tattoos can continue to look worse before they look better throughout the healing stages.
This stage can get irritating when it comes to sleeping if the tattoo is in an awkward location, like on your shoulder or side. It can be difficult to get a good sleep in a lot of circumstances due to the soreness of the tattoo, and the fact that you’ll want to keep the tattoo from rubbing and sticking to the bedsheets.
While sleeping with a new tattoo can seem worrying and quite awkward depending on the tattoo’s location, and whether it’s wrapped, etc., this awkwardness should subside after a couple of nights as the tattoo becomes gradually less inflamed, swollen and painful.
Check out our article about sleeping with a new tattoo for more information about getting a restful night with your new ink.
Finally, it should be known that you should keep your tattoo away from direct sun exposure for at least 3-4 weeks while the tattoo is healing. UV can be very damaging to tattoos, especially while they’re still healing. Care should also be taken once the tattoo has fully healed, too, by always ensuring you wear at least SPF 30+ sunscreen. Over time, UV can cause a tattoo to fade considerably.
Stage 1 Roundup/Tips
Stage Two – Itching and Flaking
A lot of people regard this as the worst stage of healing. This stage is infamous due to the dreaded itchy ink.
At this point in the process, the scabs are hard and well-formed, and a few of the smaller ones are probably ready to start flaking off.
This is going to continue for around another week. Your skin is going to become very dry and very flaky (personally, this is my least favorite part of the whole process).
While all new tattoos will eventually flake, some tattoos will peel so lightly that you may not even be able to see this process in action.
For this reason, don’t get concerned if yours doesn’t look like it’s flaking – I can assure you that the process will still be occurring – it will likely just be on a smaller scale.
Lighter tattoos, especially ones primarily made up of white ink, will tend to flake and peel much lighter than darker, thicker tattoos.
At this stage, the dryness of the damaged and dead skin is what causes the flaking, and this flaking is what primarily brings on the itching that everybody loves to hate.
The secret to preventing itching is to keep the skin moisturized. Do not scratch your tattoo. This is very important and can ruin a beautiful tattoo if you’re not careful. Of all the things not to do while your tattoo is healing, scratching the area is one of the most important.
If you MUST relieve the itch, instead of scratching, try lightly tapping the area, or give it another wash/moisturize. We have an amazing article written specifically to help with tattoo itching if you’re especially struggling.
During stage 2, you will want to moisturize your tattoo as often as possible. Some people advise 6-7 times a day, but moisturizing with a good quality fragrance-free lotion each time after washing should be enough to keep your tattoo moist enough to prevent extreme dryness and itching.
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.
Ensure your tattoo is completely dry before applying lotion. Water trapped between the lotion and the skin can cause your scabs to soak up water and become gloopy. This makes the scabs far more likely to be pulled off by becoming stuck to something, such as bed sheets or clothing.
If you apply too much lotion, pat off the excess with a paper towel until only a faint shine can be seen on the surface. You don’t want to suffocate your tattoo with lotion; it needs to breathe while healing.
As you reach the end of this stage, more and more of your skin is going to become flaky and start to dangle from your tattooed area. It will be very tempting to peel these pieces of skin off but do not mess with them – they will fall off when they’re ready. By pulling the flaking pieces of skin away prematurely can cause tattoo ink to be tugged from the deeper layers, potentially causing patchiness and fading.
The half-peeled-off pieces of skin all over your tattoo, along with the dryness means your tattoo is going to look very unsightly and ugly for a few days, although the heavy peeling only usually lasts for 2-4 days.
Stage 2 Roundup/Tips
Stage Three – Dull & Cloudy
Nearly there! You’ve made it to the third and final stage of the healing process. By this point, pretty much all of your scabs and areas of flaky skin will have dropped off, although a few of the heavier scabs may still be hanging around – excuse the pun.
The tattooed area will most-likely still be slightly flaky, and a little sore/sensitive to the touch. Continue to moisturize whenever your skin begins to look/feel dry.
Throughout this stage, your tattoo will continue to look somewhat cloudy, dull and scaly – it can even look a bit glossy/shiny in the light at the same time (weirdly). When a healing tattoo looks faded it can often be quite worrying, but rest assured this is normal.
There is typically still a very fine dead layer of skin over the tattoo at this stage, but this will naturally flake away over the next month or two until your skin has completely regenerated back to normal. The clarity and beauty will return when your brand new skin reaches the surface, although this can take a couple of months.
For this reason, it’s sometimes common for a black tattoo to look like it’s turning grey during healing – but the deep, sharp blacks should return with time.
This is the perfect time to check your tattoo over for any problems such as patchy spots, fading, or any tattoo blowout that may have occurred during the tattooing procedure. You can then contact your tattoo artist to arrange a touchup if necessary.
When Is a Tattoo Fully Healed?
Although your skin should look pretty much back to normal after the 2-3 weeks of healing stages, the deeper layers of skin will still be busy repairing themselves.
Your most upper/outer layers of skin will always heal the fastest because it’s the most important part to seal up and regenerate in order to block infection-causing bacteria from entering the wound.
The lower layers of skin will most-likely take 3-4 months to completely heal, though your tattoo will start to look much clearer and sharper long before those 3-4 months are up. Most healing problems will have totally cleared up by this time too.
In conclusion, it’s hard to say when a tattoo is fully healed, because everybody heals differently. It also depends on lots of various factors such as how large the piece is, and how good the tattoo artist was (if they were rough and pushed the needle deeper than required, the tattoo will probably take longer than normal to heal).
If 4-6 months have passed since your last piece of work on the tattoo (either the initial session, or an additional touch-up), then it’s relatively safe to say that your tattooed area should be fully healed.
Tattoo Healing and Aftercare Tips
Practicing correct aftercare procedures is critical in preventing infections and ensuring the tattoo heals properly.
Keep your tattoo clean
Keeping your tattoo as clean as possible is essential when attempting to avoid infection. Use a hypoallergenic fragrance-free soap to clean the area at least twice daily. If the tap water isn’t safe to drink where you live, boil the water first and let it cool before washing the area, or use distilled water instead. Let the tattoo completely dry before applying any type of lotion.
Using a tattoo-specific or sensitive skin-friendly lotion on the area will help to keep the skin nice and hydrated, and really help with any itchiness. Just be sure to avoid unsuitable products that contain artificial fragrances or colorings, which can irritate the healing skin.
Avoid Direct Sunlight
In the first couple of months after getting a new tattoo, it’s best to keep it covered with protective clothing, or at least a good-quality sunscreen. Direct sunlight will cause tattoos to fade over time, which will mean a trip back to the studio for a touch up.
Leave scabs alone
It’s very likely that your tattoo will scab over and begin to itch. Try as hard as possible to avoid picking or scratching at the scabs. Scratching can damage the tattoo and cause scarring, and your fingernails can transport bacteria to the site of the wound. You can apply lotion regularly to help ease any itching.
Signs Your Tattoo Isn’t Healing Properly
If you notice your tattoo isn’t healing the way think it should be, book in to see your doctor as soon as you can. Signs of poor healing include:
- Fever or chills: Getting flu-like symptoms while your tattoo is healing could mean the area has become infected or your skin is having an allergic reaction to the ink. Seek medical advice as soon as possible if this is the case.
- Redness: While it’s normal for a tattoo to remain red for a few days after the initial session, it starts to become a cause for concern if the redness doesn’t begin to fade away shortly, or if it begins to get even worse. Seek medical advice if this happens to you.
- Oozing: If your tattoo continues to ooze fluids after a few days, it’s best to consult your doctor. This is especially true if the fluid is smelly and/or green or yellow in color, as these symptoms are normally a sign of infection.
- Prolonged Swelling: While your tattoo may be swollen at first, this swelling should quickly reduce over a few days, and skin surrounding the tattoo shouldn’t be inflamed. If any swelling persists, it may be worth speaking to a doctor as you may be having an allergic reaction to the ink.
- Prolonged itching or hives: If you break out in little bumps or hives in the weeks after getting a tattoo, or if your tattoo starts to become itchy, consult your doctor. Normally these symptoms are signs of an allergic reaction, and can sometimes present themselves months or years after getting the tattoo.
All in all, it may seem like a lot is going on with your tattoo after your initial inking session, and it may feel like there are a million instructions to follow, but remember, it’s only for 2-3 weeks.
Take care of your tattoo and follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions as well as humanly possible during this very important period, and by the end of it, you should be set up to have a fabulous piece of ink etched into your body for the rest of your life. Congratulations!