Tattoo Aftercare

Benna Crawford
New tattoo

Your new tat is awesome - vivid, clean lines, realistic shading, and perfect. The artist did a great job and now it's your turn to make that tat work. Proper aftercare prevents infection and safeguards the amazing image of your fresh ink.

Managing Aftercare

Woman getting a tattoo

Aftercare is what you do in the hours, days and weeks following your tattoo session, to ensure that new ink heals cleanly and clearly. You are safeguarding your health, avoiding infection and keeping every detail and hue of the inked image intact. Discuss proper aftercare protocols when you book your appointment, so you know what to expect. That allows you to plan the best time to get the tat, and to stock any supplies you may need for care and cleaning. Your tattoo artist will give you a printout of aftercare instructions.

After the intensity and exhilaration of getting the tattoo, you may be overwhelmed. Details of what comes next could slip right out of your mind, so hang onto that instruction sheet. Aftercare is you taking ownership of your tattoo and its healing.

Basic Maintenance

Aftercare is pretty standard and some general guidelines are present in every set of instructions. Aftercare may be slightly different, depending on your personal health level, the placement of the tattoo, and the environment/climate. However, the essential elements of sanitary, safe care are the same. Make sure to follow the instructions of a reputable, licensed artists so you avoid common tattoo care myths.

  • Getting ready
    Wash your hands. This is one of the most important aspects to remember to prevent infection. Always wash your hands before touching the area around your new tat.
  • Listen to your artist and follow instructions about taking off the bandage or film. Leave it in place for at least two, and maybe up to 24, hours.
  • After removing the initial bandage, gently wash the area with a mild soap and warm water. Pat it dry with a clean towel or absorbent paper towel - don't rub.
  • The open wound may leak (this is called exudate) a little so just pat that dry as well. It's normal.
  • Apply a light moisturizer with clean fingers. It's best to use perfume-free, dye-free, non-petroleum ointment.
  • Let the tat breathe. Don't re-bandage it, but do keep tight clothing and other irritants away from it, and keep it clean.
  • Wash and moisturize the tat about three times a day. This depends on your occupation and activity. If you can't avoid some sweat or dirt, you'll have to clean more frequently. Minimize exposure to daily grime.
  • Stay out of the sun (this is one of the ways you can ruin a new tattoo) and don't pick or scratch drying itchy skin. This protects the look and color of the tat.
  • Take quick showers rather than soaking in the tub. Soaking a healing tat interferes with natural scabbing and could lead to infection or mess up the appearance of the tat.

Typical Timeline

The critical part of aftercare is the first two weeks after you get your new tattoo. The stages break down - roughly - like this:

  • Day One: Remove the bandage, normally after two to three hours. (Wash your hands first!) Wash the tat, pat it dry and moisturize. Repeat two or three times before bed (depending on when you get the tattoo).
  • Days Two through Four: Wash, dry, moisturize three to four times a day, leaving the tattoo exposed to the air.
  • Days Three to Five and Beyond: The tattoo will scab over and start to itch. Don't scratch it. Continue to follow cleaning and moisturizing instructions while the wound is healing. Once the scab forms, you can switch from an ointment to a lighter, non-scented lotion moisturizer such as over-the-counter Aveeno, Lubriderm or Curel.
  • Days Five to Fourteen: Keep washing; keep moisturizing; keep your hands off that itchy flaking scab and watch your tat slowly emerge as the scab falls off. No baths, swimming or hot tubs this whole time - the tat needs air-drying and moisturizer, not water-logging.
  • Days Fourteen to Thirty: Your newly healed tat is still tender. The skin may be slightly pink and shiny once the scab falls off. Stay out of the sun, drop the frequent washing, but continue regular, gentle cleaning and moisturizing because tattoos need about four weeks to heal completely.

Avoid These Tat Destroyers

  • Tattoo this
    Never touch a new tat until you've washed your hands thoroughly first. Germs are everywhere.
  • Don't use harsh cleansers on the area. Rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide will irritate and inflame the open wound.
  • Don't rub! Jeans that rub, sheets that rub, vigorous towel drying - all of these will damage the forming scab over the wound and interfere with the healthy healing of your tat.
  • No sleeping on your tattoo. If you're working on a full back, sleep on your stomach for a few weeks. Switch sides to accommodate a left-side or right-side tattoo and keep pressure off it as you slumber. Your tat, and your sheets, will thank you.
  • Don't soak the tat - no exceptions. Pools, hot tubs, bubble baths, rivers, lakes and oceans are swimming with germs and microscopic organisms you don't want to know. A wet scab is not a healing scab. Quick showers won't kill you for a couple of weeks.
  • Skip the tan. Sun damage will fade the ink and a sunburn could cause serious peeling which will take some of your tattoo with it. Your brief is: No direct sun without loose cover-up clothing, and no tanning beds.
  • Skip the gym. At least avoid flexing the area around the new tattoo until it is fully healed. You don't want your shoulder and upper arm tribal or full-color illustration to fall victim to your obsessive bench pressing. Work on some other body parts and treat the tat area like a sports injury until the delicate new skin over it is flexible again.
  • Do not wear super-tight clothing. If you must, confine your body con threads to areas that are not tattooed. The friction of a tight belt, waistband, bra strap or lycra gear will irritate the scab and remove ink. Tight or closed shoes will rub the scab off and could lead to infection. If you ever wanted to try nudity and can bare it all without causing a scandal, now would be the time. Go for the baggy look at the office or out in public.

Tat Troubles

Infection is the most common complication to interfere with the uneventful healing of a new tattoo. Persistent redness, tenderness, swelling, a bumpy rash, excessive drainage or oozing pus are all signs to see your doctor. So is evidence of an allergic reaction to pigments and dyes. Allergies might resemble an infection or show up as an annoying, persistent itchy rash at the site. Medication provides some relief from allergic reaction and ends an infection before it has chance to take hold. Be diligent about any signs of a problem while you are following the aftercare protocol and see a medical professional for any complications.

Ever Aftercare

Exposure to the sun fades all tattoos, so sunblock and cover-up clothing should remain lifelong strategies to protect your shiny new tat from damage. The colors - even black - and the detail remain distinct longer when you control for sun exposure. Use SPF 30 sunscreen - a higher SPF is better - and reapply frequently when you are sweaty or after swimming. Regular moisturizing is another new habit to develop. Dry skin sheds cells at an accelerated pace and those cells contain microscopic bits of tattoo pigment. Moisturize often to avoid premature aging of the tattoo. Consider the artwork on your skin as an investment, and commit to preserving the fine lines and fab color of your brand new tattoo with regular maintenance.

Tattoo Aftercare