Three Healing Stages of Tattoos

Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Fresh tattoo

Play it safe when you're planning some new body ink. Learn about the healing stages of tattoos so you can avoid infection and wind up with a terrific-looking tat. Actually getting your tattoo is truly the highlight of the entire inking process, but you're not finished once you walk out of the shop door. In fact, you're just at the beginning of the healing process.

Basic Healing Stages of Tattoos

The basic healing process will likely last anywhere from three to four weeks, and you'll need to take special care of your new body art during this time to ensure it looks its best once that healing has finished. Understanding the healing stages of tattoos gives you a better idea of what to expect in the days and weeks to come.

Stage One

new covered tattoo

This initial stage of healing begins right after your tattoo is finished. According to an article on wound healing in the Journal of International Medical Research, the processes of repair begin immediately after an injury. So although your new tattoo is very sensitive, your body is already working to heal the skin. At this point, you can consider the area an open wound, and you'll need to treat it accordingly. Your artist will gently wash the area and bandage it to protect it from bacteria.

Most artists recommend you keep the area covered for the first twenty-hours, although you will likely need to change the bandage because a fresh tat usually bleeds and weeps a bit. If you allow the bandage to soak up too much fluid, it may wind up sticking to your skin, and this is definitely not good for the healing process.

Many people describe a fresh tattoo as feeling similar to a sunburn. The area tends to sting a bit, and it can look red and become a little raised or swollen. Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process. You'll begin to form scabs over the area, and you shouldn't attempt to remove them. Just gently hand wash the area once or twice a day with a very mild soap, pat dry with a fresh paper towel and gently dab on a light amount of the moisturizing aftercare lotion your artist recommends.

Although people tend to heal at different rates, the first healing stage of a tattoo usually lasts about one week as long as an infection doesn't set in. If you find the pain is more than you expected, you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Stage Two

Tattoo in healing process

The second stage of healing usually brings the onset of itching. At this point:

  • The scabs are well formed and probably just beginning to flake off - a process that will continue for about a week.
  • The skin around the tattoo may become a bit dry.
  • Most people experience some peeling, just as they would with a sunburn.

Although different tattoo artists have different aftercare methods, aftercare instructions typically recommend to avoid peeling the skin. Just allow it to slough off naturally and, by all means, avoid scratching your tattoo. Scratching can cause damage and ultimately spoil the look of your tattoo by the time healing is complete. Applying more aftercare lotion to the area should bring some relief.

According to Web MD, cold packs (applied only over a layer of fabric, not in direct contact with the skin) and antihistamines such as Benadryl can help bring relief to irritated, itchy tattoos. Expect this healing stage to last about one week as well.

Stage Three

Thin flaky layer over tattoo

Stage three brings the final healing of the area. If you've followed the proper aftercare, by this point, most or all of the scabs have fallen away from your tat, although the area may still be slightly dry and mildly tender. You may notice that your ink no longer looks as vibrant as it did when it was first finished, and this is natural.

There is typically still a layer of dead skin over the tattoo at this point that obscures it a bit, but once that layer naturally sloughs away you'll see what your new tattoo really looks like. If you've managed to avoid infection and scratching, it probably looks great.

Things to Avoid While Your Tattoo Heals

While your tattoo is healing, you'll want to take special care of your skin, and that means there ares some things to avoid.

  • Don't apply petroleum-based skin products to your tattoo.
  • Avoid swimming. Chlorine can leach color and dry out the still tender skin around your tat.
  • Don't soak in the tub. This can allow bacteria to penetrate the unhealed needle wounds.
  • Avoid exposing your new tattoo to direct sunlight. This can lead to fading and you could easily burn the unhealed skin.
  • Don't pick at your scabs or scratch/rub your tat.

Aftercare to Fabulous

Overall, the healing stages of tattoos stretch out over a three to four week period, and taking special care of your tat during this time is essential to preserve the wonderful work your tattoo artist has created. If you experience any symptoms beyond those mentioned here, contact your artist right away. Although he or she likely isn't a licensed physician, tattoo artists are very familiar with the signs of normal healing versus the signs of a burgeoning infection. If your artist believes you have an infection, you'll be given directions about how to care for the area topically, as well as be cautioned to visit your family doctor if the situation warrants it.

Three Healing Stages of Tattoos