How to Care for a Peeling Tattoo

  • Written By Dan Hunter on May 20, 2023
    Last Updated: May 20, 2023

For many tattoo newbies, watching their new tattoo peel and flake away from the skin can be an alarming sight. Not to worry, though. Your peeling tattoo is almost certainly nothing to worry about, as things are rarely as bad as they seem.

Why Do Tattoos Peel?

As you’re getting inked, the tattooing needles penetrate your skin thousands of times a minute, and over the course of a tattooing session, a large area of your skin will essentially become an open wound.

While healing, your tattoo will be susceptible to infection, and your skin’s natural response to this is to form scabs over the wounded area.

When scabbing forms, it will cover your tattoo in a protective layer of hardened skin that will eventually need to peel and flake away to expose the new, healthy layer of skin below it. This peeling is your skin’s natural shedding process. 

Peeling Tattoo

When Does Peeling Start?

New tattoos will peel towards the end of the first week of healing, normally between days 5 and 7. However, you may see signs of peeling after only three days.

Again, this will be slightly different for everyone, but you should see at least the start of the peeling phase beginning by the end of the first week. Don’t worry if your tattoo hasn’t started peeling by this point; your tattoo may just be taking slightly longer to heal or may be peeling much less visibly.

The 3 main stages of the tattoo healing process: 

Is it Normal for Tattoos to Peel?

Peeling tattoos are completely normal during the tattoo healing process. Every tattoo will cause an open wound that your body needs to protect until it heals.

​You should be aware that the way your skin peels will always be different depending on tattoo size, the location of your tattoo, how well you’ve looked after your tattoo, and how heavily the tattoo has scabbed. Bigger tattoos will always peel and flake more due to the larger area of skin that has been distressed by the needles.

Some areas of skin are more resistant to peeling and will flake away at slower speeds than other areas. For example, skin that is constantly exposed to the elements and is moved/used more often will normally take longer to peel. This is because the skin is tougher in these locations and will naturally shed less frequently.

If you haven’t moisturized your tattoo as much as you should have during the aftercare phase, your skin may sometimes dry out and flake away quicker.

This tattoo could do with some added moisturizer

How Long Do Tattoos Peel For?

Most tattoos end up peeling for roughly one week.

Tattoos on more overused areas of skin, like the wrists and elbows, will likely take slightly longer to finish peeling, but tattoos on soft and supple skin could finish peeling after just a few days.

Sometimes, tattoos will actually peel twice. When this happens, there will usually be one relatively heavy peeling phase, followed by light peeling that is often barely noticeable.

What if a Tattoo Doesn’t Peel?

Some tattoos, especially if they’re small, will peel so lightly that they don’t look like they’re peeling at all. In most cases, this is nothing to worry about, and your tattoo will still be healing as it should be.

It’s also bearing in mind that not all tattoos peel at exactly the same time, so yours may just be delayed by a day or two.

Finally, it’s imperative that you don’t self-induce peeling by rubbing or scratching at the skin as this can lead to infection, removal of the tattoo ink, and permanent scarring.

How to Care for a Peeling Tattoo

Don’t Pick and Pull the Scabs

This is the worst thing you can do during tattoo peeling.

While the peeling skin may look ready to come off, it will likely still be slightly attached to your ‘live’ skin until it drops off naturally. If you pick or pull at the skin before it’s completely ready, you’re taking the risk of pulling unsettled ink out along with the peeling skin, causing areas of patchiness within your tattoo.

It might be tempting to give the peeling skin a little helping hand, but it’s best to play it safe and let everything happen naturally. 

Those little pieces of skin look so tempting, but leave them alone!

Don’t Scratch Your Tattoo if It Itches

Again, all scratching does is cause the flaking skin to get ripped off prematurely, potentially leading to patchy areas of tattoo.

Your skin is very prone to infection while it’s peeling, and your fingernails will be harboring thousands of germs, even if they look clean. Scratching your new tattoo could turn out to be disastrous if an infection takes hold.

Wait until the tattoo has completely healed before attempting to scratch it.

Moisturizing is Essential

Not only will moisturizing your new tattoo soothe any itching you’re suffering from, but it will also help your tattoo heal faster, thanks to the many useful vitamins and minerals that most moisturizing lotions and ointments contain.

Tattoos can also feel quite tight as the scabs form, so moisturizing them often helps to bring some elasticity back.

Using a good moisturizing lotion on your tattoo can also help it look better while it’s scabbing and peeling. The dried, flaky pieces of skin will soak up moisture and start to look more like the surrounding areas of healthy skin, camouflaging them somewhat.

The extra moisture will soak into the flaky pieces of skin so they lie flat against the body and help prevent unsightly chunks of dead, dried skin are poking out.  Moisture also helps scabs fall off at the right stage of healing, preventing them from getting accidentally ripped off when brushing against various objects.

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 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.​ Click here to buy from Amazon.

Keep Your Tattoo Clean

Keeping your tattoo clean while it’s healing and peeling will prevent potential infections and will help to speed up healing by ridding the area of dirt and oil, which may be blocking pores and slowing down the repairing process. Check here for my favorite tattoo soaps.

Be Patient

There are no other ways to say it – your tattoo will look terrible for a week or two. It will look dull and dry, with chunks of skin hanging off.

Unfortunately, this is just a part of the process, and there is nothing you can do until the phase has finished and the skin has completely healed up.

Peeling Concerns

Why Does My Tattoo Look Like It’s Peeling and Flaking Off?

When your tattoo peels, it will often look like the tattoo is peeling off completely. This is due to the dead skin flakes containing small amounts of ink. This is completely normal.

When your artist was tattooing you, he was trying to pack as much ink into your skin as possible to ensure the color and contrast remain​ vibrant, and to ensure no areas of patchiness develop due to lack of ink within your skin. When the deeper layers of skin are full of ink and cannot contain any more, the excess ink will begin to push toward the upper layers. This is what you are seeing.

Very colorful peeling

Don’t Worry!

As you wash your peeling tattoo, you may see many flakes of colored ink on your hands and all over the sink. This is entirely normal and your tattoo isn’t getting washed away.

Follow the correct aftercare procedures, and your tattoo should heal perfectly.

Tattoos can peel lots while being washed.

My Tattoo Looks Like It’s Lost Color After Peeling

Once your tattoo has finished peeling, it can sometimes look scaly and dull. This, again, is completely normal.

Although the top layers of dead skin have flaked away, the tattooed area will still not be completely healed. Therefore, your skin can continue to look cloudy for up to a few weeks after the peeling has finished.

Also, be aware that your tattoo will likely never look as bright and vibrant as it did when you left the studio. After healing, a translucent layer of skin will have grown over your tattoo as a form of protection. So, while your ink will hopefully still look great, this extra layer of skin may cause it to look slightly lighter than it did initially.

This slight color change can cause some people to worry that their black tattoos are turning grey. While the ink will not have been changing color during the healing process, the amount of skin over the top of the ink will have increased, making it seem like the ink is lighter.

After Your Tattoo Has Finished Peeling

After your tattoo has finished peeling, you can sleep easy knowing you don’t have to look at a dry, flaky mess anymore. However, it’s important to understand that your tattoo will still be healing below the surface for a few more weeks, so continue to take good care of the area.

Keep up with good practices like shielding your tattoo from the sun and moisturizing it regularly, and your tattoo should carry on looking great for years to come.

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