What To Expect When You Get a Tattoo

How to care for new ink — and what’s cause for concern as it heals
getting a tattoo

Thinking about new ink? Tattoos are getting more popular all the time. A 2019 poll found 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, up from just 21% in 2012.

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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.”

Tattoo risks

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.

While the pain is temporary, the artwork is forever. “One of the biggest risks is tattoo regret,” cautions 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.

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

Prepping for a new tattoo

Ready to make your mark? Dr. Vij offers these pointers for a smooth (and safe) tattoo experience.

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Shop around & find a professional

Look for a clean, well-run shop with licensed tattoo artists and sterile equipment. Ask if the artist has experience working on clients with your skin tone, Dr. Vij advises. “Pigments can appear different on fair skin versus darker skin,” he says. 

Never resort to home tattoo kits, even if the person doing it says they have plenty of experience. Permanent body modification isn’t the time to cut corners.

Start fresh

Go in with clean skin. And hold off if you have any rashes or infections, Dr. Vij says.  

Steer clear

Ibuprofen and aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding, so they aren’t the best painkillers to choose if you’re gearing up to get inked, Dr. Vij says. Instead, reach for acetaminophen, which doesn’t carry a risk of bleeding. Alcohol can also increase the bleeding risk (not to mention the risk of tattoo regret), so don’t schedule your tattoo after happy hour.   

Tattoo aftercare

You can expect your new tat to smart 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.

Wash with care

Your tattoo artist should send you home with instructions for caring for your body art. You’ll need to keep it covered for 24 hours. “Soak the bandage in warm water to soften it before gently peeling it off,” Dr. Vij says. “Then wash it with a gentle cleanser and warm water to remove scabbing or crusting.”

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Keep it moisturized

Slather your new tattoo with a thick layer of mild ointment like petroleum jelly, Dr. Vij says. “Scabbing and crusting delay healing, so keep it well moisturized.”

Spot the signs of trouble

Some redness, flaking and scabbing are normal as your tattoo heals, Dr. Vij says. But see a doctor if you notice any signs of infection:

  • 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 the body, or redness that expands farther and farther from the tattoo site.

SPF for the win

Some inks can fade in response to UV 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, Dr. Vij says. (But you were wearing sunscreen anyway, right?)

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

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