Aftercare for tattoos can be confusing and tricky. Every tattooer seems to have different instructions and everyone who’s ever been tattooed will instruct as if they are an expert. In this post, I will go over what my experience is after working in the tattoo industry since 1998, what I’ve learned and what works best for me. This does not mean that I can anticipate what your experience will be or what will work for you. The first place to go if you think you have any infection is the doctor. The first place to go when you’re just not sure if your tattoo is healing normally is the person who did your tattoo (unless they were not a professional). We also have a blog post that covers how to prepare before you get your tattoo here.
Keep in mind:
- Everyone’s skin is different. Just because something works great for my skin does not mean it will work for you.
- There are as many ways to take care of a tattoo as there are tattooers.
- Sometimes tattoos heal like a sunburn and sometimes they heal like road rash.
- If you think you have an infection, go to the doctor.
- Your tattooer is not a medical professional. They can not diagnose what is going on with your skin before or after your tattoo.
Tattoos are created by using needles to push pigment into the skin. The needles go through the epidermis (the top layer) and into the dermis (the layer under the top) so this creates a wound. With a normal wound, the goal is simply to heal. Tattoos are different because they need to heal without any of the pigment coming out and with minimal scarring.
Tattoos bleed and a clear fluid called serous drainage is normal while it’s being done and for a day or two after. It’s normal for the tattoo to drain clear fluid and ink may drain too. It’s normal for a tattoo to drain whatever color or colors are in it. If you have an absorbent bandage you may even see the basic tattoo shape and color transferred onto the bandage when you remove it.
Normal during the tattoo application:
- Clear fluid
- Slight pink or redness of the skin
In my experience, it is best to absorb the clear fluid with the bandage or a new paper towel throughout the first day and evening. This fluid can build up and if it dries on the tattoo it can create thicker scabs. With an absorbent bandage, I just leave it on all night. With the clear, breathable bandages like Tegaderm, Tatu-Derm or Sani-Derm I also leave them on all night. If your tattooer uses plastic wrap then I would take it off as soon as you get home, wash it gently and then blot with a clean paper towel whenever it has clear fluid on it. The less clear fluid and blood that dries on the tattoo, the thinner the scabs could be. Thin scabs are great. Thick scabs can be difficult to heal properly. Some people will recommend you clean the tattoo and re-apply the clear, breathable bandage. I personally heal best with this method. I have sensitive, red-head skin so keeping it covered with a breathable bandage for two to three days works very well for me. Do not re-bandage with anything that is not made to be a bandage such as plastic wrap, paper towels, or athletic tape.
Normal materials for bandaging:
- Absorbent, non-adherent pad or pads
- Clear, breathable adherent bandage such as Tegadarm, Tatu-Derm or Sani-Derm
- Some people still use plastic wrap but it is not ideal
- Some people still use gauze but it may stick to the tattoo
- Spray on tattoo bandages
- Only re-bandage if recommended and only with approved bandages.
Below is a video of the best way, that we have found, to remove the clear bandages.
The next day the tattoo may look like it’s been painted on. A very thin layer of scabbing has usually started. Sometimes this can get thicker and sometimes it stays about the same throughout the healing. Keeping it clean is important as it’s a wound that has the possibility of getting infected. I never use a sponge, washcloth, or luffa on my tattoos. I simply wash my hands and then gently use my hands to wash the tattoo. I use a mild, natural, liquid soap. Bar soaps can have bacteria on them so liquid soap is best. Always wash gently and don’t scrub anything off. Use a low stream of warm water to rinse all of the soap off.
Sometimes tattooing can cause bruising. The area around the tattoo may look yellow and even a little bit blue or purple. The tattoo process is traumatic to the skin and tissue on and around the tattoo area. I’ve seen swelling and bruising more with people who are taking antibiotics when they get tattooed so I don’t recommend getting tattooed if you’re taking them. There should never be a blister or blisters on or around the tattoo. If you have a black, purple, or blue blister forming go to the emergency room immediately.
Over the next week, the scabs may or may not thicken. Either way is normal. Be very gentle with the scabs. If scabs come off before they are ready they can pull out the ink that is under them. Picking at scabs or scratching them can pull the color out and ruin the tattoo. We like to moisturize one to three times a day with a tiny bit of Bright Tattoo Aftercare. Just enough so the scabs don’t crack but not so much that they are saturated. Too little moisturizer is better than too much. It should not have a layer of moisturizer on it all day. A tiny bit, one to three times a day, should be absorbed in about five minutes and then left alone. If there is a layer of moisturizer still on the tattoo, I would use a clean paper towel to gently blot off the excess.
Clothes can rub or catch on scabs and pull them off so be careful what you wear on the tattoo. Try to stick with a loose, soft cotton or other smooth fabrics. Avoid tight-fitting clothes or fabric that can catch on scabs like stockings and sweaters. If your tattoo is in a place where you feel you have to wear tight-fitting clothing like on a foot that has to have shoes on it, under a bra or waistline, the clear bandages or non-adherent pads are useful. Since they breathe the tattoo still gets oxygen but the bandage will help protect it from the rubbing clothing.
I always wash my sheets or put fresh sheets on the bed. It’s very important that anything that may touch the tattoo be clean. This may be a good time to let the pets sleep in another room. If you have to sleep with pets or if you think your tattoo may stick to the sheets, cover it with the clear bandages or non-adherent pads before bed for the first few days. Depending on where my tattoo is, I usually wear a clean shirt, leggings, or a sock to bed for at least a week so I’m sure that it is only touching clean clothing. If you wake up stuck to the sheets or the clothing you had on top of the tattoo, bring it with you into the shower to soak the fabric and let it fall off of the tattoo. You can also saturate a washcloth with water and place it over the fabric to release it from the tattoo. Never peel or tear fabric off of the tattoo. You could pull the scabs and ink out by doing this, ruining the tattoo.
Completely soaking the tattoo in a bath can cause the scabs to become saturated and roll off before they are healed pulling the ink out with them. The same thing can happen if they are saturated with ointment or moisturizer so only put enough on so the area doesn’t crack with movement. Using too much balm or ointment can clog pores and cause a break out on or around the tattoo.
Open water such as oceans, streams, lakes, and rivers are full of bacteria so avoid these completely. Exposing the tattoo to bacteria in open water could cause infections. Chlorinated water is also bad for tattoos. Chlorine is a chemical and can irritate the healing tattoo. Irritation can cause it to heal much slower and often cause damage to the appearance of the tattoo.
- Try not to wear clothes that may catch or rub on scabs.
- Never pick or scratch the scabs on your tattoo.
- Do not soak them as they can become soft and roll off before they are healed.
- Use a very small amount of moisturizer so they don’t crack but not enough to saturate them.
- Stay completely out of chlorinated water, the ocean and open water like streams, lakes, and rivers.
Eventually, the scabs will start to flake off as they heal. This can take four days to two weeks depending on the person, the part of the body, and the tattoo style. The scabs will be the color that is under them so if you have a rainbow tattoo, you will have rainbow scabs flaking off. Don’t help them come off! They can still pull ink out where they are attached. Just keep using light moisturizer one to three times a day and be gentle. I like to wear clothes over my tattoo on a daily basis while it’s healing so I don’t even see the scabs coming off and no one else has to either. The last thing you want is to leave scabs behind at the coffee counter.
Four days to two weeks in your tattoo may or may not get itchy. This can be a mild itch or an itch so intense that it keeps you up at night. Moisturizing can help, depending on the type of moisturizer you use. Some will make it feel better and some will actually make it itch worse. I always try it out and stop using anything that makes it worse. Avoid scratching the tattoo. I have found that gently slapping it helps temporarily but will make it itch worse immediately after. For some people gently slapping helps. Putting steady pressure on it helps for me.
After the scabs flake off there will still be a layer of dry skin. The skin under the scabs is a fresh, new layer so it’s still healing from the inside out. This may make the tattoo look a little faded but usually, it’s just that slightly opaque dry skin layer. Over the next few days to three weeks, this dry skin will slowly come off to reveal your awesome new tattoo! Don’t pick or scratch this layer either. You can still pull the color out of the tattoo at this point. Just keep moisturizing one to three times a day.
It takes about four weeks for a tattoo to completely heal from the inside out. Some people take three weeks, some take six. It just depends on the person, the placement on the body, and the style of tattoo. If you do need a touch up it’s best to wait for the full four to five weeks to be sure that the tattoo is completely healed. At this time, you can choose to keep moisturizing it or not. It will always appear darker or brighter after being moisturized because dry skin can make it look a bit faded.
- Scabs can be thin or thick.
- Don’t pick or scratch the tattoo while it’s healing.
- After the scabs come off the tattoo will still have a layer of dry skin.
- Use moisturizer very sparingly.
- Itching is normal but don’t scratch it.
- It can take two to six weeks to completely heal.
After the tattoo is healed the only thing I put on it is sunscreen. You can read about sunscreen and tattoos on our blog post here.
Keep it clean, don’t pick it and put a tiny bit of moisturizer on it. Your body is amazing and will heal the tattoo with no help at all. The moisturizer is simply to keep the scabs from cracking or pulling when you move. If you take good care of your tattoo it will look great for many years to come.
If you got your tattoo at Damask Tattoo and you have questions reach out to your artist or you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Enjoy your tattoos!