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: Open Wound - Up to One Week
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 anywhere from three to seven days 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.
- If the bandage sticks when you try to remove it, thoroughly wet the gauze with warm sterile water to loosen any dried blood or fluid. Then peel the bandage gently away from the tat.
- Get the most from your moisturizer by lightly patting your washed tattoo with a clean towel and allowing it to air-dry for about 10 minutes. This provides a better surface for the aftercare lotion. Then apply a light film of the aftercare moisturizer with the third and fourth fingers of your hand.
- For a tat in an awkward-to-reach spot, be sure the friend you enlist to help you clean and moisturize it washes hi or her hands well before touching the bandage or applying aftercare lotion.
Stage Two: Itching - Second Week
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.
Scabs can be thin and whitish or pick up some ink and be the colors of the tattoo. This is normal. So is a slight pinkishness and tenderness when the scabs start to fall off. The aftercare lotion prevents the tender new skin from becoming tight and dry. Treat the area as you would any healing scrape or cut and you'll minimize discomfort and avoid scarring.
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.
- Sweating can irritate a scabbing tattoo, so avoid strenuous sweaty activity if your tat is sensitive.
- Scratching off or peeling scabs will pull color out of your tattoo. Think of the premature fade to your fabulous ink when you are tempted to pick at an itchy or messy-looking scab.
- Sunblock is your friend. Top off that tat with sunblock if you have to be out in the sun. If you make this a permanent practice, even after healing, your tattoo will stay vibrant for a long time.
Stage Three: Drying Out - Weeks Two to Four
Stage three brings the final healing of the area. Since healing depends on size, location and complexity of the tattoo, as well as your own body's recovery speed, the exact timing varies.
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.
- Continue to moisturize the area and protect it from prolonged exposure to sun.
- Do not clean or sterilize the tattoo area with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. After the scabs come off, the skin is still too tender for harsh disinfectants, and the tattoo can still be damaged.
- Stick to showers to give the ink time to really settle. It can take a month or more for some tattoos to heal completely. Don't risk diluting or blurring your skin art.
Stage Four: Healed at Last - Weeks Three to Six
Your tattoo is healed, typically within three to six weeks, when the scabs and rough skin naturally peel or flake off and the new skin feels smooth again. Your skin seems back to normal, although with the addition of some significant art.
You might be tempted to abandon your babying and moisturizing protocol, however, the tat still needs delicate treatment. Even though you no longer have an open wound, excessive rubbing, soaking, sun exposure, stretching or abrasion can re-injure the sensitive area or disturb the careful lines of the artwork.
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 are 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.
When to Worry
Most tattoos heal without incident if you follow the aftercare protocol. But some symptoms are cause for concern and you should stay alert for anything out of the ordinary.
Signs that warrant contact with your health care provider might be:
- Redness around the area that lasts beyond a few days
- Excessive drainage or soreness
- Extreme tenderness that doesn't ease up
If the tattoo develops swelling, a burning sensation or any kind of a rash, or if you develop a fever, you could have an infection and that should be treated immediately. At the first sign that normal redness darkens and radiates in streaks out from the tattoo site, see a doctor who can check for blood poisoning.
Yellow or green pus oozing from the site is, likewise, a sign of serious infection. Some people are allergic to the inks, especially reds, so an abnormal amount of irritation or swelling around one or more colors could indicate an allergy.
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 that seem out of the ordinary, 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.