3 Stages of the Tattoo Healing Process
Each new tattoo goes through a critical healing process. You can typically split this process up into about three different stages. These stages can then be segmented further day-by-day.
Take a glance through our guide to see what you can expect during your very own tattoo healing process.
Like any other type of open skin wound, you must protect a new tattoo from harmful infectious organisms until it can regenerate its natural protective barrier.
The regeneration is what a tattoo goes through as it heals; until 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 recover at a slower rate over the next couple of months. This timeline will vary depending on style, size, and artist technique.
The more carefully you follow your aftercare instructions during the early days, the quicker your tattoo will heal, meaning you can resume regular activities faster without causing any unwanted damage to the area.
1. Stage One (Days 1-6) – Oozing, swelling, and redness gradually improves each day. Scabbing begins to form over the area.
2. Stage Two (Days 7-14) – Itching and flaking begin. These symptoms continue 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
Healing begins as soon as you leave the tattoo artist’s chair. The tattooed skin is now an open wound, and the body will immediately start 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 until you’re able to get home and clean it.
Each tattoo artist approaches wrapping differently, but many advise to keep the wrap on for 12-24 hours. Wrapping can be made from plastic, cloth, or second skin.
Once you’ve carefully removed the wrap, your skin will be oozing with blood, plasma and ink, which is entirely 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 these substances will eliminate 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:
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, have a doctor check that 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.
Bruising is usually minimal if the tattoo artist wasn’t too rough and didn’t force the needle too deep. Still, you should expect at least some swelling and tenderness on areas where the needle passed over several times. These side effects usually occur on darker areas of a tattoo or areas containing lots of shading.
If you take blood-thinning medication or supplements like Fish oil, you may also experience heavier bruising.
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.
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.
Another matter you must consider is sleep. Sleeping can become problematic 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 more manageable 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.
It would help if you also were 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.
Stage 1 Roundup
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.
Scabs are hard and well-formed by this point, and a few of the smaller ones are probably ready to start flaking off.
The flaking will 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 occur; it will likely just be on a smaller scale.
Lighter tattoos, especially ones containing lots of white ink, will 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.
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 a fantastic 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. An excellent moisturizing routine should be enough to prevent any extreme dryness or itching.
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.
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 will 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.
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.
Stage 2 Roundup
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 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 particular 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 touch up 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 helpful 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 heal completely, but your tattoo will start to look much clearer and sharper long before this. Most healing problems will have resolved themselves by this time, too.
In conclusion, it’s hard to say when a tattoo has entirely healed because everybody heals differently. It also depends on 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.
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
Your tattoo will likely 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 you think it should be, book in to see your doctor as soon as you can. Signs of poor healing include:
- Fever or chills: While feeling a little queezy after getting a large tattoo is relatively common, getting flu-like symptoms while your tattoo is healing could mean infection. It may also imply 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 seep fluids after a few days, it’s best to consult your doctor. This is especially true if the fluid is smelly or green-to-yellow in color. These symptoms are usually 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.
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 critical period. By the end of the process, you should have a wonderful piece of ink etched onto your body for the rest of your life. Congratulations!