So you just got a tattoo — congrats! Time to focus on aftercare. If you want your tattoo to age gracefully, the next few weeks are extra important to make sure it heals properly.
Here’s a complete guide to proper tattoo aftercare.
Your tattoo artist will kick-start your aftercare routine as soon as their work is complete. After all, this is their masterpiece, and they want to preserve its beauty. They’ll likely apply a thin layer of petroleum-based ointment over your ink and then cover it with plastic wrap or a bandage.
While you might want to gaze at your new addition (or run your fingers over it), resist the urge. A tattoo is basically an open wound, so keeping it covered (and your hands away from it) prevents bacteria from getting into your skin.
Plus, depending on where the tattoo is on your body, keeping it covered will prevent your clothes from rubbing against it and causing discomfort and irritation.
The biggest mistake people make with new tattoos? Not using sunblock and exposing the tattoo to sunlight, says New York-based cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Michele Green.
Follow these do’s and don’ts for basic tattoo aftercare:
- Do follow your tattoo artist’s instructions. Leave your tattoo covered for several hours to let it absorb any fluid, blood, or excess ink that might leak out. (This is totally normal.)
- Do remember that a tattoo is a wound. When you’re ready to remove the bandage, treat your tattoo like you would any other skin injury. Wash your hands before touching your tattoo and carefully wash the affected area with soap and water. Always use lukewarm water and a mild, fragrance-free soap.
- Do keep it moist, but let it breathe. Then, cover your whole tattoo with a thin layer of ointment or another approved product (see the list below for more options). If your tattoo is in an area that isn’t covered by clothing, leave it uncovered to let your skin breathe and facilitate healing.
- Do cover up when you’re in the sun. Opt for loose-fitting, sun-protective clothing until your tattoo heals. Then, pile on the SPF — tattooed skin isn’t immune to UV rays or premature aging.
- Do reach out to your tattoo artist or doctor if you have any unusual swelling, irritation, or other signs of infection or allergic reactions.
- Don’t rub your skin dry — pat it gently to avoid irritation.
- Don’t wear sunscreen until your tattoo is fully healed, because the chemicals or minerals could irritate your broken skin.
- Don’t pick, scratch, or rub your tattoo until it’s healed. You could cause scarring.
- Don’t swim, soak in a hot tub, or take a bath until your tattoo has healed completely. Opt for a shower instead. (It’s fine to soak or swim if you can keep your new tattoo out of the water.) Green also recommends avoiding steam rooms and saunas until your ink has healed.
Your healing process will be as unique as your tattoo itself. Bigger tattoos will likely take longer to heal, as will those that rub against clothing. All the tattoo aftercare tips we share below are normal parts of the healing process.
- You may notice blood and clear plasma oozing from your tattoo, as well as some ink. You may also feel warmth or swelling.
- Keep your new tat clean (wash it with fragrance-free soap after a few hours).
- As your skin heals, you’ll notice thin scabs starting to form. Don’t pick them. Your tattoo may look duller or cloudier right now — don’t worry.
- Wash your tattoo twice a day, and then use a moisturizer that’s free of alcohol and fragrance.
- Some ink may wash off your skin.
- The redness will start to fade, and scabs will continue to form. Keep your hands off them!
- Wash your tattoo twice a day, and then use a tattoo aftercare cream that’s free of alcohol and fragrance.
- Your scabs will start to fall off. Don’t help the process!
- Itching is normal, so keep your tattoo aftercare lotion handy and rub it on several times a day.
- Redness and swelling should have subsided. If they haven’t, talk to your tattoo artist or a dermatologist.
- Your tattoo might still look a little dull or dry, so tattoo aftercare products will continue to be your BFF.
- Keep up the hydration routine until your skin is fully healed and supple again.
- It can take months to completely heal from a tattoo, especially if it’s large or filled in.
- After about 3 months, your tattoo should look the way you and your artist envisioned.
- Keep your tattoo covered in sunscreen so it looks as vibrant and fresh as possible!
A tattoo is a major investment, and it’s a personal statement that’ll stick around forever — so take care of it!
“It is very important to use a protective ointment that would have no irritating chemicals in it,” explains Green. “The goal of using an ointment after a tattoo is to let the scab heal and provide a layer of emollient to allow this healing to occur.”
The ointment provides a protective barrier that slows healing just enough. You know that uncomfortable tight feeling that happens when a scab dries out? That can signal that your skin is pulling together as it heals — which is not what you want when you have a lovely design inked on your skin.
“If a scab dries up, it heals quickly but not nearly as well as when you use a healing salve and keep the area covered,” says Green. “Using the right product can make all of the difference, and it allows the healing to be better — faster is not better in this case.”
What kind of ointment do you put on tattoos? There’s no single one that’s best. But read the ingredient list and keep these tips from Green in mind:
- Choose a product with no perfumes or additives, which can be irritating or exfoliating. “Plain and simple are better in this case,” she says.
- Avoid retinols, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, and lanolin, which can be irritating.
- Don’t use Neosporin or other antibiotic ointments, which could cause an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis.
- Use a fragrance-free, mild soap.
- Try Dial, Dove, or Neutrogena.
- Products for babies tend to be good choices, since they’re usually fragrance-free and gentle.
- These thicker, ultra-hydrating products are best during the first few days.
- Use a thin layer of these products, so your skin can still breathe and heal.
- A&D ointment (yes, the kind used for diaper rash) is a cheap and popular choice for new tattoo aftercare. This ointment is also called Bepanthen.
- Aquaphor Advanced Healing Ointment is another hydrating and anti-inflammatory option.
- Good old petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline) also works well.
- Skinfix Inked is a tattoo aftercare balm that Green recommends.
- CeraVe Healing Ointment can also protect and hydrate your new ink.
- As your tattoo starts to heal and the scabs fall off, reach for a gentle moisturizer as needed.
- Baby care lotions and creams work well on tattoos, but always choose fragrance-free varieties!
- These easy-to-find lotions and creams are solid choices:
Tattoos and coconut oil: A love story
Looking for an affordable, natural way to keep your tattoo protected? Look no further than your kitchen. Coconut oil is a super popular tattoo aftercare product.
The oil is a natural analgesic (pain reliever) and has anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing properties, so it makes sense to use it on your newly inked skin. Make sure you choose virgin coconut oil, which is solid at room temp, over refined versions that are liquid.
So you did everything right, but your new tattoo just isn’t healing. When should you talk to your tattoo artist or doctor? Here’s a rundown of three common but unpleasant side effects.
“If you start to feel heat or that the area around the tattoo is pulsating or swollen, you may have an infection,” says Green.
- a rash
When to be concerned:
- if the swelling gets worse
- if the area becomes more painful
- if it oozes pus or stinky discharge
- if you have a fever, chills, or sweats
“This is a sign that the infection from the tattoo is systemic and needs oral antibiotic treatment,” says Green. “Another sign is a greenish discharge from the treated tattoo and a smell like old sweaty socks.” (That’s the sign of a serious bacterial or fungal infection that needs prompt attention.)
An allergic reaction
Tattoos involve injecting a foreign substance into your skin, and your skin doesn’t always take kindly to the dyes, pigments, and metallic compounds in inks. You may experience a pruritic (itchy) rash, which can be a sign of an allergic reaction to the dye, explains Green.
She also mentions these other symptoms of an allergic reaction:
- rashes or bumps
- redness or irritation
- nodules or hard bumps (a sign of more serious reactions)
The most common reactions are to red dye, Green says. Yellow, black, red, and blue inks can cause “a photosensitive allergic reaction from the tattoo’s interaction with sunlight,” she adds.
“Some allergic reactions resolve in a few weeks, and other more severe reactions can last for many months,” she says. “It is important to consult a dermatologist to evaluate the reaction and help treat this condition.”
For mild allergic reactions, she says you can “apply cold compresses to bring down the swelling, take an oral antihistamine like Zyrtec or Benadryl, and apply a topical cortisone cream to reduce the local inflammation.”
Scarring and fading
Scarring and fading can happen if you don’t take good care of your tattoo as it heals. These side effects are why Green emphasizes applying sunscreen to tattoos — and why you should keep them moisturized as they heal.
Fading and scarring are also common reasons some people decide to have tattoos removed, a procedure that dermatologists like Green can perform.