It started as an innocent little tickle. Now it’s a full-fledged scratch attack on your arm ink. What gives?
Most tattoos reach peak itchiness when they’re still fresh. After all, your skin has just been scraped by inky needles. But sometimes tattoos itch for other reasons.
Regardless of why the itch is happening, the first commandment of tats is “Thou shalt not scratch.” You could seriously mess up your ink.
Here’s how to figure out what’s making you itch — and how to stop it.
Here are all the reasons your ink is driving you up a wall.
It’s just healing
If the ink’s fresh, here’s the deal: Your tattoo is a wound. Yep, just like an itchy scab or dry skin, sometimes tattoos itch while they heal.
Your new body art should heal up within a week or two. While it’s healing, use only gentle moisturizers recommended by your tattoo artist.
It could be infected
Getting a tat exposes the middle layer of your skin (aka the dermis) to ink, a needle, and not-so-fresh air.
Avoiding infection starts with your tattoo artist. Go to someone who uses single-use or properly sterilized tools. Don’t hesitate to ask them about this when you make the appointment.
After the deed is done, give your new ink TLC in its first 2 weeks. That’s when you’re most prone to infection.
Common signs of a skin infection:
- red streaks
- red, itchy bumps
- painful bumps
- spreading rash
- fever and chills
If you suspect an infection, make a doctor’s appointment to stop the spread. This isn’t something you want to mess with on your own.
It could be an allergic reaction
Some tattoo dyes are made with plastic materials. And research has revealed that red tattoo ink can contain toxic metals like iron, calcium, and aluminum. Obvs, this is a no-go for sensitive skin.
And don’t think you’re safe just because it’s not your first rodeo! The American Academy of Dermatology says some people experience allergic reactions years after the ink has healed.
Sometimes unrelated medical issues trigger allergies too. Things like joint replacement procedures and HIV meds can clash with old tattoos.
Common allergy symptoms:
- red, itchy skin
- mysterious blisters
- zit-like bumps
- bumpy, scaly skin
- crusty skin
- clear liquid oozing from your tattoo
Mild allergic reactions usually get better on their own. But if your symptoms keep getting worse, call your doctor. Serious allergic reactions can be fatal.
Symptoms of a life threatening allergic reaction:
- rapid heartbeat
- tightness in your chest
- major swelling
- difficulty breathing
- severe dizziness
It could be dirty ink (dun dun dun!)
No one wants to imagine contaminated ink being injected into their skin, but here we are.
According to the FDA, even sealed containers of pigment or inks labeled “sterile” carry a risk of contamination. Contaminated ink will likely lead to an infection, so keep an eye out for the symptoms listed above.
It could be a sun allergy
Sunlight is one of life’s simple joys… unless your tattoo causes a sun allergy.
It’s a real thing: Some people become actually, truly allergic to sunlight within hours of getting a tattoo.
Symptoms of a sun allergy:
- redness and swelling
- tiny itchy bumps
To reduce the likelihood of a sun allergy, avoid direct sunlight after your tattoo appointment and keep your art bandaged for as long as your artist says it should be.
Once your tat has fully healed, use water-resistant sunscreen — SPF 30 or more — whenever you go outside.
It could be part of a preexisting skin condition
If you already have eczema, psoriasis, or another skin condition, your tattoo might trigger a flare-up.
If you suspect an existing skin condition is behind your itchy tattoo, call your dermatologist. You’ll want to follow both your tattoo artist’s aftercare instructions and your derm’s treatment recommendations for the skin condition.
It could be sarcoidosis
Sarco-whaaat? Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation. The swelling and irritation can occur all over your body, even internally, so it’s no wonder it could affect tattoos.
If you have sarcoidosis, your tat could swell or feel super itchy even years after you get inked.
It could be an MRI’s fault
Weird as it sounds, MRI scans can mess with tattoos. In rare cases, MRIs cause tattoos to burn, itch, or swell. Fortunately, the reaction usually resolves quickly on its own.
If you have a tattoo and need to schedule an MRI, make sure you tell your doc about your ink.
Could it be skin cancer?
Unexplained itching and irritation can trigger our worst fears. But there’s no evidence linking tattoos to skin cancer.
If you’ve ruled out every other reason for your itchy tattoo and you also notice other skin issues, like evolving moles or abnormal growths, call your doctor for a skin cancer check.
Treatment will depend on what’s causing the itchiness in the first place.
Remember: New tattoos are super vulnerable to infection, so avoid scratching at all costs!
Soothe it with cream
Avoid putting over-the-counter (OTC) creams, ointments, or meds on fresh tattoos. Slathering goop on new ink can slow the healing process.
Once your tattoo is healed, soothe the itch with hydrocortisone cream.
Cool it with a compress
Ah, sweet relief! A cool washcloth or compress can calm irritation, swelling, and itching.
New ink typically takes a couple of weeks to heal, so check with your doctor before using compresses or applying pressure to fresh tattoos.
For best results, moisturize
Dry skin = itchy skin.
While lotion is your friend, artificial fragrances and colors aren’t. Stick with hypoallergenic, fragrance-free creams for itchy skin. If your old ink is acting up, feel free to use thick creams like oatmeal-based lotion or cocoa butter.
If your tattoo is still new, consult with your artist. Some tattoo artists recommend avoiding specific ingredients, and they know their inks best.
Oatmeal baths FTW (old ink only!)
Oatmeal is the OG skin soother because it’s a known treatment for eczema.
This doesn’t require turning your tub into a bowl of porridge. Use colloidal oatmeal, an oat powder that dissolves in water. It’ll calm and soothe your skin.
PSA: Never submerge a new tattoo before it’s completely healed.
Treat underlying conditions
If you have a diagnosed skin condition like eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis, talk to your doctor about prescription creams.
If you have sarcoidosis, your doc will probably prescribe immunosuppressants to keep your inflammation and itchiness in check.
Try OTC meds
Antihistamines like Benadryl can calm inflammation, itching, or rashes. As an anti-allergy med, it reduces symptoms of irritation and allergic reactions.
Other OTC meds, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can help with pain or swelling.
Consider tattoo removal
If all else fails and your body’s still reacting to its latest work of art, consider having the ink drawn out. *sad trombone*
Be sure to see a dermatologist or another skin professional for tattoo removal. It’s a time consuming process that involves laser treatments and sometimes dermabrasion. Some people also end up with permanent scarring.
If your itchiness doesn’t go away once your tattoo has healed and you’ve tried OTC remedies, you should see a doctor.
If you’re experiencing these signs of infection, it’s important to call a doctor ASAP:
- shortness of breath
Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to keep the infection from spreading.
Itchy tattoos are usually nothing to worry about. But if the itchiness gets out of control or lasts longer than a couple of weeks, seek medical care.