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Tattoo Aftercare Tips From a Dermatologist

Help your ink heal by keeping it moisturized and protected from the sun

Gloved hands using a tattoo iron to apply a tattoo

Thinking about new ink? Maybe your mom’s name boldly displayed across your arm or a small flower discretely located on your ankle?

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Tattoos are getting more popular all the time. According to the Pew Research Center, 32% of adults in the U.S. have at least one tattoo, with 22% having more than one.

And the majority of those branding sessions go off without a hitch.

“In most cases, tattoos aren’t harmful,” says dermatologist Alok Vij, MD. “But there are some risks you should know about if you’re considering a tattoo.”

Modern tattoo artists perform their magic with machines that use multiple needles to inject colored pigments into the dermis, the middle layer of skin. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t feel great.

“Getting a tattoo can be painful,” Dr. Vij says. “And while the pain is temporary, the artwork is forever.”

So, are you ready for some ink? If so, you should also be ready for your tattoo aftercare.

Dr. Vij helps us prep by giving us some advice and instructions on new tattoo aftercare and when you should be concerned about an infection.

Tattoo aftercare instructions

You can expect your new tat to hurt a bit the day you get it, but it should feel better over the next few days. Here’s how to help the healing process along.

Supplies or products you’ll need

When it comes to what to use for tattoo aftercare, you’ll need the following items:

  • Warm water.
  • Gentle cleanser or soap.
  • Moisturizing lotion or ointment.
  • Sunscreen.

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“Tattoos are controlled forms of trauma to your skin, which needs support to heal properly” says Dr. Vij. “Improper or negligent aftercare can compromise the healing process, leaving you with infections, rashes, scars or smudges in your tattoo, and you’ll only have yourself to blame.”

Tattoo aftercare steps

It can take a few months for your tattoo to fully heal — it all depends on the size of the tattoo and where it’s located. If your tattoo is on the larger side, you may notice redness and swelling for longer.

How should you take care of your new tattoo? Dr. Vij provides this tattoo aftercare timeline with the steps you should follow to ensure your new ink heals well.

First 24 hours

After you receive your tattoo, your tattoo artist should apply a thin layer of ointment to the area and cover your tattoo with a bandage. Your tattoo artist should also send you home with instructions for caring for your body art. You’ll typically need to keep it covered for at least 24 hours.

When you’re ready to remove the bandage, you want to be delicate. (And wash your hands first!)

“Soak the bandage in warm water to soften it before gently peeling it off,” Dr. Vij instructs. “Then, wash it with a gentle cleanser and warm water. Avoid scrubbing or rubbing the area.”

Opt for a soap that’s mild and doesn’t contain any harsh ingredients, perfumes or dyes. Once you’re done cleaning, gently pat the area dry with a soft washcloth or towel.

After this point, you don’t have to cover the area with a new bandage or dressing. You may notice that the tattooed area oozes a little — this is a mix of blood and ink. Your skin may also feel sore and may appear red. While alarming, these are all normal signs that your body is starting to heal.

Also, if you need to wear clothing over the area, opt for loose, breathable options. You want to keep the area exposed so it can breathe.

First two months

During the first two weeks, you may start to feel some itching and notice flaking in and around the tattoo. This is normal. You may also notice scabs forming.

Do your best to not scratch or pick at any scabs.

Dr. Vij says that you should continue to wash the area twice daily with a gentle cleanser — and apply a moisturizer to the area to prevent any scabbing and help ease any itching.

So, what kind of lotion should you use? Look for a mild, gentle moisturizer or ointment. Your tattoo artist may have a brand that they recommend you use, but overall, look for one that’s fragrance-free and dye-free to avoid irritating your skin.

After about three weeks, you’ll notice the scabs healing and a reduction in flakiness. Keep cleaning and moisturizing the area daily.

Two months and beyond

Once you reach the two-month mark, the top layer of your skin typically has healed, leaving your tattoo looking bright and vibrant.

But know that it can take the bottom layers of your skin several months to completely heal and that your overall healing time can vary.

While you don’t need to cleanse the area daily anymore, you can keep applying moisturizer as needed.

What NOT to do after getting a tattoo

There’s also a handful of don’ts when it comes to tattoo care. Dr. Vij suggests you avoid the following:

  • Scratching.
  • Picking at scabs.
  • Exfoliating the area.
  • Using petroleum jelly.
  • Direct sunlight.
  • Applying sunscreen to the area until the tattoo is fully healed.
  • Wearing tight clothing.
  • Immersing the area in water (hot tubs, bathtubs, pools, etc.) until the tattoo is fully healed.

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“You want to strike that delicate balance between keeping the skin clean and moisturized so it can heal; neither too moist so the skin ‘prunes’ or gets macerated, nor too dry so the tattoo crusts or scabs over,” shares Dr. Vij. “Petroleum jelly can block the pores in your skin, potentially leading to an overgrowth of bacteria and increased inflammation in the healing process. Instead, look for a noncomedogenic product.”

Possible complications after getting a tattoo

“One of the biggest risks is tattoo regret,” notes Dr. Vij. (Sure, there’s laser tattoo removal, but it’s painful, expensive and can take months). That’s why it’s good to stop and think a minute before you get your new crush’s name etched into your skin.

Besides pain and potential regret, there are some possible health risks from tattoos, Dr. Vij says:

  • Infections: There’s a slim chance you could catch a bloodborne illness like hepatitis if the tattoo equipment hasn’t been properly sterilized between clients. More common is the risk that the damaged skin will become infected as it heals.
  • Scarring: After the tattoo has healed, some people develop unusually thick, raised scars.
  • Ink reactions: Some people develop an allergy or hypersensitivity to the ink, causing a red, bumpy rash.

While some redness, flaking and scabbing are normal as your tattoo heals, Dr. Vij says you should see a doctor if you notice any signs of infection. This includes:

  • Fever.
  • Skin that feels hot to the touch.
  • Odor or significant drainage from the tattooed skin.
  • Pain that increases instead of getting better.
  • Red streaks that run from the tattoo toward the center of your body, or redness that expands farther and farther from the tattoo site.

But the majority of tattoos heal fine without lasting problems. “These complications are rare, but it’s good to be aware of the possibility,” Dr. Vij states.

Bottom line?

Once your tattoo has fully healed, you’ll need to think about maintenance. Some inks can fade in response to UV (ultraviolet) light. Sun damage can also weaken the collagen fibers in the dermis, where the pigment is housed.

To keep your new artwork looking bright and crisp, coat your tattoo with sunscreen when you’re out in the sunshine. (But you were wearing sunscreen anyway, right?)

With the right TLC and by following the recommended tattoo aftercare, your new body art will soon be healed and just another beautiful part of the skin you’re in.

“Ink is forever,” Dr. Vij says. “But the outcome of your tattoo depends on the quality of your aftercare almost as much as it depends on the skill of your tattoo artist.”

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