Getting your first tattoo is exciting! For some people, it can be a fun spur of the moment decision while others spend months — or sometimes even years — deciding on the perfect design. In either case, after undergoing the sometimes substantial pain of getting your tattoo, it’s important to take proper care of it so that it looks as great on your skin as it did in your head. Hopefully, you found a dependable artist who can help you out with this.
To the uninitiated it may seem surprising that tattoos require special care to heal, but preventing infection and encouraging a healing process that keeps your tattoo “pretty” does require some work on your part after you leave the artist’s chair.
Remember that your tattoo starts out as what is basically an open wound. Your skin’s natural healing process usually leads to a well-healed piece of art that has smooth lines and even color just like the artist intended. If cared for improperly though, you can end up with a tattoo that has patches of ink missing, raised lines, scarring, or even a nasty infection.
This guide will give you an overview of basic tattoo care and also address some of the rumors you may have heard about the do’s and don’ts of caring for your new tattoo. The last thing you want is to spend your hard-earned cash on a gorgeous new piece of art, only to have it ruined by infection because you let your best friend talk you into going to the beach before it finished healing.
Believe it or not, caring for your tattoo starts before you get inked. From planning, to the day of your tattoo, to the weeks following, there are a few things you can do that will help ensure you have the best chance at a healthy, great-looking tattoo.
Do your research
This step is sort of what you’re doing now, reading this. Ideally, you want to do a little bit of research even before you get your tattoo. Make sure you choose a reputable tattoo studio and an experienced artist. Without both of those things you risk getting a tattoo that was done with improper equipment or by an unskilled hand.
The second almost certainly guarantees your tattoo won’t look as epic as you imagined, and the first is how you end up with a tattoo that looks… well, do an image search of “tattoo infections.”
If you’ve made an appointment with your artist, be on time! After all, do you really want them to rush that lion’s mane they’re currently etching into your shoulder? It’s also important to show up well rested, hydrated, and sober. This will give you the best chance at a cleanly done piece.
Be proactive about your aftercare
Tattoos can take quite a bit of time to heal, and any issues during the healing process can negatively impact the tattoo. Keep it clean and properly moisturized. Everybody has a slightly different idea of the “best way” to care for a tattoo. The following steps will help guide you, but the advice of an experienced tattoo artist shouldn’t be ignored either.
This section explains in more detail how to clean and care for your new tattoo. It’s mostly common sense, but if you want to make doubly sure you’ve got it down pat, take a look at the steps below.
Leave the artist’s wrap on until you’re ready to wash your tattoo
The ointment and wrap that your artist placed on a newly finished tattoo ought to stay there right up until you wash it for the first time. It provides important protection against bacteria and infection.
Don’t wait too long though – new tattoos weep a mixture of blood, excess ink, and plasma. If the initial wrap is left on for too long this will be trapped against your skin and can create an infection.
Wash your tattoo
You want antibacterial or antimicrobial soap that doesn’t have fragrance in it (fragrances can cause skin irritation), and water that is warm but not hot enough to scald. Newly tattooed skin is sensitive and very warm water may feel too hot for comfort.
Use the soap to gently rub any plasma “goo” off with your fingertips, rather than cleaning by scrubbing with a cloth or sponge. Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned the area, rinse well with water to ensure all soap and debris has been washed away.
Moisturize when dry
Letting your tattoo air dry is preferable. If you cannot do this, gently pat dry with a paper towel or soft cotton towel. Don’t rub the skin while drying, and don’t use “fluffy” towels to dry with as these small fibers can stick in the healing tattoo and contribute to infection.
Once your tattoo is dry, applying a little bit of moisturizer can keep it from scabbing too soon, which may affect how well your skin retains the ink. It also helps prevent itching. Choose an ointment that doesn’t have dye or fragrances, as these can irritate healing skin. For the first week, you’ll want to stick to ointments rather than regular lotion to avoid irritation.
Keep the area clean and moisturized until fully healed
During the entire healing process, it is important to repeat this wash-dry-moisturize ritual regularly. Just how often you do it depends on where you are at in the healing process. For the first several days, your tattoo is still raw and may weep plasma. During this time, it needs extra help staying clean and you’ll want to wash it three to four times a day. Only apply a little bit of ointment as too much can suffocate your skin and slow down healing.
Once it has scabbed (usually around day seven), you can slow down to once or twice a day. When it has peeled and the scabs are gone (around day 14), you can switch from ointment to a non-irritating lotion and start caring for your new tattoo like you do the rest of your skin.
Here are a few other questions you might have, along with their answers!
Is it really that big of a deal to go swimming/ to the beach before my tattoo is healed?
A big yes! Soaking your tattoo in any water can interfere with proper healing, but swimming pools, lakes, and oceans all harbor lots of bacteria that can lead to infection. If you had a big cut on your hand, would you want to stick it in a fish tank?
My tattoo is swollen, red, and hot. Is this normal?
Depending on where your tattoo is located, the area may swell and become a little bit red and warm. This is normal in the first couple of days, but if the redness and irritation persists or worsens, seek medical advice.
Is it true that tattoos don’t always “stick” in the skin?
This depends on where your tattoo is located. Areas that move a lot, like hands and feet, can sometimes not retain ink as well during the tattooing/healing process. That means that all or part of your tattoo may seem to simply “fall off” as a scab during healing. If this happens, get in touch with your artist as they may be willing to redo the work free of charge or at a reduced rate.
Do I need to worry about the sun damaging my tattoo?
Even after healing, sun exposure can deteriorate your tattoo. This is especially true of pieces with lighter colors. Always wear strong sunscreen (SPF 30 or above) to protect your tattoos when in the sun.
Should I wrap my new tattoo during the healing process?
While leaving your tattoo open to the air helps with the healing process, wrapping it during the night to prevent it rubbing against your bed sheets can be a helpful idea.
Can I shave over freshly tattooed skin?
If your tattoo is on an area of skin you would normally shave, it’s best to wait until the skin is completely healed before resuming shaving. Otherwise you may irritate the skin, remove scabs before their time, and risk infection.