3 Stages Of The Tattoo Healing Process

  • Written By Dan Hunter on July 12, 2016
    Last Updated: November 29, 2020

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, you must protect tattooed skin from harmful infectious organisms until it can regenerate its natural protective barrier.

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.

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 over 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. This means you can resume regular activities faster without causing any unwanted damage to the area.

1. Stage One (Days 1-6) – Oozing, swelling and redness that gradually improves each day. Scabbing begins to form over the area.

2. Stage Two (Days 7-14) – Itching and flaking begins. This continues until all layers of dead skin and scabs have fallen away.

3. Stage Three (Days 15-30) – The tattoo looks fully healed but may appear slightly cloudy for a few weeks. Deeper layers of skin are still repairing, so continue to look after your tattoo.

Stage One – Oozing and Soreness

This initial stage of healing begins as soon as you get off the tattoo artist’s chair. The tattooed area is now an open wound and the body will immediately begin to produce plasma to kickstart the clotting and scabbing process.

At this point, your tattoo artist will clean the area with antibacterial soap. They will then bandage/wrap the tattoo for added protection against bacteria and infection until you’re able to get home and clean it.

Each tattoo artist has their own approach to wrapping, but many advise to keep the wrap on for 12-24 hours. Wrapping can be made of plastic, bandage, or special second skin.

A bit of blood under the wrap is completely normal

Once the wrap has been carefully removed, it’s likely that your skin will be oozing with blood, plasma, and ink. This is completely normal and is the body’s way of repairing itself.

At this point, you will want to very gently wash away as much blood/ink/gooey plasma as you can. Removing this material will remove the “food” that attracts pathogens.

To do this, use warm water and sensitive fragrance-free soap. Apply 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:

Aftercare Tip

The oozing plasma (clear, gloopy liquid) on your tattoo is what helps your skin to scab. Keeping plasma levels to a minimum will help to prevent the formation of big unsightly scabs that you normally see on a large wound. These bigger scabs can dry out and begin to crack and itch, which is why it’s important to limit them if possible.

Thus, it’s important to remove as much plasma as possible over the first few days after getting a tattoo.

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. It might feel like a moderate-to-severe sunburn.

Your body may feel somewhat 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 warmth and soreness, the tattoo will probably look red and raised. Bruising may appear due to small amounts of blood pooling beneath the surface.

Red Skin
A new tattoo still looking red and sore

Bruising is usually minimal if the tattoo artist wasn’t too rough and the needle wasn’t forced too deep. Still, you should still expect at least some swelling and tenderness on areas where the needle passed over several times. This usually occurs in darker areas or places containing lots of shading.

If you take blood-thinning medication or supplements like Fish oil, you may also experience heavier bruising.

Did You Know?

Swelling that appears around a tattoo is due to increased blood flow to the area. More blood helps to boost healing capabilities as it contains higher levels of white blood cells.

The body sends these cells to the area to assist in fighting foreign bodies trying to enter the open wound. The warmness felt around the area is a result of increased blood flow.

The above reactions are normal and to be expected during the first stage of the tattoo healing process.

Yet, you should see a doctor if you experience any extreme bruising or redness around your tattoo, especially if it’s been a few days since getting it done.

Redness or bruising around the tattoo that isn’t improving can a sign of tattoo infection. Worsening of these symptoms, especially if associated with increasing pain, is a sign of infection.

Towards the end of this stage, you will begin to see the formation of scabbing. As long you’re cleaning away any excess plasma and ink, the scabbing shouldn’t be too thick or 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.

Scabbing Ink
This tattoo is scabbing quite heavily, so will probably peel away in larger flakes

Another matter you must consider is sleep. Sleeping can become difficult if the tattoo is in an awkward location, like on your shoulder or side. You may also find it hard to sleep well due to the soreness of the tattoo. Additionally, you’ll want to keep the tattoo from rubbing and sticking to the bedsheets as well as you can.

While sleeping can be awkward or worrying depending on the tattoo’s location, it should become easier after a couple of nights as the area heals.

Check out our sleeping with a new tattoo article for more information about getting a restful night with new ink.

Finally, you should keep your tattoo away from direct sun exposure for at least 3-4 until it heals. UV radiation can be very damaging to tattoos, especially while they’re still healing.

You should also be careful once the tattoo has finished healing, too. Do this by always ensuring you wear at least SPF 30+ sunscreen. Over time, UV can cause a tattoo to fade considerably. Clothing works far superior to sunscreen in protecting your tattoo from UV rays.

Remember!

Blot/dab your tattoo dry instead of rubbing it, as this can pull scabs off, removing color and ink in the process.

Stage 1 Roundup/Tips

  • Stage one of the healing process will last for around one week, although everybody heals at different rates. Check out this article to see how to speed up the healing process.
  • Avoid picking off any scabs that have formed. This will delay recovery and may pull color from the area before the tattoo heals up completely.
  • Clean your tattoo 2-3 times a day with a fragrance-free soap using your fingers and pat dry. Avoid rubbing.
  • Expect bruising, swelling or redness for the first few days, but seek medical advice if symptoms don’t improve or get worse.
  • Keep your tattoo out of the sun until it has healed properly.

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.

By this point, 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, and your skin is going to become very dry and flaky.

While all new tattoos will flake, some 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 your tattoo 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 containing lots of white ink will tend to flake and peel much lighter than darker ones.

By this stage, the dryness of the damaged and dead skin is what causes much of the flaking. This flaking is what primarily brings on the itching that everybody loves to hate.

Peeling
A tattoo that is starting to flake and peel

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, try lightly tapping the area or give it another wash. We have an amazing article written specifically to help with tattoo itching if you’re especially struggling.

During stage 2, you should moisturize the tattoo with fragrance-free lotion each time you wash it. This should be enough to prevent any extreme dryness or 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, much more of your skin is going to become flaky and start peel away. It will be very tempting to pull these pieces of skin off but do not mess with them – they will fall off when they’re ready. Any pulling may uproot ink from the deeper layers of skin which can cause patchiness and fading.

Heavy peeling
Very colorful peeling

Half-peeled pieces of skin hanging from your tattoo, along with extra dryness means your tattoo is going to look quite bad for several days. Luckily, the heavy peeling only usually lasts for 2-4 days.

Don’t Worry!

When washing your tattoo you may see some colored pieces of skin flaking away. This is completely normal as you clean the area as long as you’re not being too rough. This is actually how I lost most of my peeling skin, and all of my tattoos have healed perfectly.

You may also experience some tightness in the skin around your tattoo. This is due to the skin becoming drier than normal as it heals, and this is also normal. Applying lotion to the skin if it starts to feel tight can help to loosen it up.

Tattoo flakes
Tattoos can peel lots while being washed.

Stage 2 Roundup/Tips

  • This stage is likely to last for around one week, but again, everybody heals differently.
  • Your skin/scabs will begin to dry up, flake, and fall off. Avoid pulling any flaky pieces of skin away prematurely.
  • Your tattoo may itch – do not scratch it. A good aftercare tip is to apply lotion to moisturize the area and help relieve itching.
  • The skin around your tattoo may start to feel tight, this is normal. Apply lotion to reduce tightness.
  • Your tattoo will look like an ugly piece of shedding snakes skin for a few days. Suck it up and wait for all the dead skin to flake off naturally. Most of mine peeled off while washing the tattoo (which is completely normal).

Stage Three – Dull & Cloudy

Nearly there! You’ve made it to the third and final stage of the healing process. By now, most scabs and flaky areas will have disappeared, but one or two heavier scabs may still remain.

The tattooed area will probably still be somewhat flaky and a little sore/sensitive to the touch. Continue to moisturize whenever your skin begins to look or feel dry.

Throughout this stage, your tattoo can continue to look cloudy, dull or scaly. It can even look somewhat glossy or shiny in certain light. When a healing tattoo looks dull or 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. This will naturally flake away over the next month or two until your skin has completely healed. The clarity and beauty will return when your newly-regenerated 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. The deep, sharp blacks should return with time, though.

This is the perfect time to check your tattoo over for any problems. Issues may include patchy spots, fading, or tattoo blowout. You can then contact your tattoo artist to arrange a touchup if necessary.

When Is a Tattoo Fully Healed?

Your skin should look normal again after the 2-3 weeks of healing stages. Nonetheless, it’s important to know that the deeper layers of skin will still be busy repairing themselves.

The upper layers of skin will always heal the fastest because they are the layers that keep infection-causing bacteria out of a wound.

The lower layers of skin usually take 3-4 months to completely heal, but your tattoo will start to look much clearer and sharper long before this. Most healing problems will have resolved 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 factors such as how large the piece is and how good the tattoo artist was.

If 4-6 months have passed since your tattoo was last worked on, then it’s safe to say that the area should be fully healed.

Tattoo Healing and Aftercare Tips

Practicing correct aftercare procedures is critical. It minimizes the risk of infection and ensures the tattoo heals quickly.

Keep your tattoo clean

Keeping your tattoo as clean as possible is essential for avoiding infection. Use a hypoallergenic fragrance-free soap to clean the area at least twice daily. If your tap water isn’t safe to drink, boil it first and let it cool before washing the area. You can also use distilled water as an alternative.

Let the tattoo completely dry before applying any lotion.

Moisturize

Using an appropriate lotion on the area will help to keep the skin nourished and hydrated. This will also help to soothe any itchiness.

Be sure to avoid unsuitable products that contain artificial fragrances or colorings. These ingredients can irritate the healing skin and cause a reaction.

Avoid Direct Sunlight

In the first couple of months after getting a new tattoo, it’s best to keep it covered with protective clothing. If this isn’t possible, use a good-quality, chemical-free zinc oxide-based sunscreen. Direct sunlight will cause tattoos to fade over time, which will mean a trip back to the studio for a touch-up.

My favorite and most recommended sunscreen for using on tattoos is EltaMD UV Sport Sunscreen Lotion.

This broad-spectrum sunscreen has all of the attributes required for not only protecting your tattoo amazingly well, but also for helping to keep it bright and vibrant. It’s suitably strong at SPF 50 and is water and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

Most importantly, EltaMD is extremely tattoo-friendly and doesn’t contain any fragrances, oils, or parabens.

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 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 infection. It may also mean your skin is having an allergic reaction to the ink. Seek medical advice as soon as possible if this is the case.
  • Redness: It’s normal for a tattoo to remain red for a few days after the initial session. However, it becomes a cause for concern if the redness doesn’t decrease or gets even worse. Seek medical advice if this happens to you. Redness accompanied by worsening pain is concerning.
  • 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. These symptoms are normally a sign of infection.
  • Prolonged Swelling: While your tattoo may be swollen at first, this swelling should reduce over a few days. If any swelling persists, speak to a doctor as you may be having an allergic reaction to the ink.
  • Prolonged itching or hives: If you break out in bumps or hives after getting a tattoo, or if your skin becomes extremely itchy, consult your doctor. These symptoms are signs of an allergic reaction. Ink allergies can sometimes present themselves months or years after getting the tattoo.

Summary

All in all, it may seem like a lot is going on with your tattoo after your sitting. It may feel like there are a million instructions to follow. But remember, it’s only for a few weeks.

Take care of your tattoo and follow your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions as well as possible during this important period. 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!