Tattoo Aftercare: Advice from a Professional Tattoo Artist

By | January 13, 2014

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A tattoo is like an investment; if you take care of it properly from the beginning, it can be something you will enjoy for many years to come. But if you don’t work at proper healing with good aftercare practices, it can truly take a toll on the finished work, no matter how talented the artist who applied it. So how do you know how you should take care of your new tattoo?

The question of tattoo aftercare is one that has existed almost as long as the tattoo itself, and is a subject that has long been debated by many, both inside the professional tattoo community and out. Every tattoo artist has their own particular recommendation as to the “best” way to heal a new tattoo. If you ask ten different people how they healed their tattoos, you’ll likely get almost as many different aftercare methods to choose from. This guide was written to help fill in any gaps in information that may have come up, as well as to offer alternative aftercare directions (from an actual tattoo artist) for those who aren’t totally happy with their current tattoo aftercare.

The most obvious place to start learning about aftercare is where your tattoo started: with your tattoo artist. Generally speaking, every artist has his or her own specific aftercare directions that they will give to you, often explained to you at the end of your tattoo and then again given on paper to take home with you. If you’re unclear as to exactly what you’re supposed to do, don’t feel foolish asking for clarification. Remember, your artist wants to see your tattoo heal just as beautifully as you do.

When you leave the tattoo studio, your new tattoo should be bandaged, preferably with something breathable and absorbent. Some artists have taken to wrapping fresh tattoos with plastic wrap, the logic behind this being that the you will leave it on long enough to get it home and clean it properly without unwrapping and rewrapping it six times to show various people on the way. This is potentially one of the worst things you can use as a bandage. It creates an occlusive seal through which oxygen cannot pass and your skin cannot breathe.

It holds moisture against the skin and raises the surface temperature of your freshly opened skin to over 100ºF, which creates warm, moist area for bacteria to breed like crazy. Aside from these reasons, fresh tattoos seep out fluids such as blood and plasma that continues for varying lengths of time depending on the person, up to a day afterward. When wrapped in plastic wrap, all those fluids have nowhere to be absorbed so they eventually drip out the bottom of the “bandage.” So yes, you can definitely show off that brand new tattoo through it, but you’ll notice that you also bear a strong resemblance to a leaky package of raw chicken at the supermarket.

That being said, if your bandage IS absorbent, it’s likely that it may stick to your new tattoo when you go to take it off and wash the area. Most artists recommend leaving the bandage on for anywhere from 1 hour to (no more than) 4 hours. The easiest way to get a bandage unstuck without hurting your new tattoo is to get the whole thing wet with a little lukewarm water. The bandage will easily lift right off and allow you to very gently wash your tattoo with a mild antibacterial soap and your fingertips. Rinse the tattoo indirectly, meaning don’t just hold your new tattoo under the faucet, splash water over it or let it run down from just above the tattooed area. Pat it dry with a clean paper towel and leave it alone for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, basically until it starts to feel like the skin is a little tight and dry.

This allows for excess moisture from the swelling under the skin as well as moisture introduced by washing the tattoo to evaporate out. It’s very important to let your tattoo “breathe” like this any time you get it wet before it gets into the peeling stage. Most tattoos should be washed 2 to 3 times daily. If it’s on an area like the wrist, hand or foot, you’re going to want to take special care to keep them clean as these areas are more likely to come into contact with dirt and bacteria throughout the day, so washing these areas 3 to 4 times a day is recommended. Showering as you normally would is fine, but it’s definitely a good idea to keep the tattooed area as much out of the water as possible. The already fragile skin becomes even more so when it absorbs excess water.

Once your tattoo is sufficiently dry, it’s time to apply something to moisturize and soothe the area. This is where the real debate on aftercare heats up. Once upon a time, it was widely recommended to use petroleum jelly (i.e. Vaseline), and even today many recommend using Vitamin A & D ointment, which has a petroleum base. Petroleum jelly does definitely help protect the abraded skin, but it can both clog pores, causing breakouts in the healing tattoo, as well as work as a drawing agent to pull ink out of the middle up to the surface of the skin, fading the tattoo before it’s even fully healed. Vitamin A & D ointment is less apt to do these things because it’s a petroleum base as opposed to all petroleum, and it does have vitamins in it to help soothe and heal, but it can still clog pores and doesn’t allow your skin to breathe easily. When used properly (incredibly sparingly), Vitamin A & D ointment can definitely work to heal a tattoo, but it still has a tendency to clog pores and increase itching during the peeling phase. Neither of these options is really designed to heal a tattoo though.

One of my favorite alternatives that actually IS designed for healing your new tattoo is a product called Tattoo Goo. It consists of various natural ingredients, such as olive oil, and vitamin E to help with healing, as well as rosemary oil to help prevent infection, among others. It has a soothing cooling effect, and when used lightly and rubbed in well is not overly greasy. Tattoo Goo is carried at many studios today, and one container will generally last through several average-sized tattoos. It can also be purchased online through the Tattoo Goo website.

Another more recent option for tattoo aftercare is a product from H2Ocean, known primarily for their enzyme-enhanced saltwater piercing aftercare sprays. It’s called H2Ocean Foam, and it’s very different from traditional salves. The company recommends you wash your fresh tattoo several times the first day without applying any aftercare to allow for plasma secretion to stop. The second day, continue washing as recommended, now applying the foam aftercare and rubbing in completely 3-5 times per day. It is completely greaseless and odorless. It contains a salt concentration that actually forces your skin cells to absorb water through reverse osmosis to keep them hydrated while over 700 types of bacterial cells keep absorbing water until they burst, making it highly effective at helping to prevent infection. Now, in my personal experience, people that like this product absolutely love it and won’t use salves again. People that don’t care for it really tend to dislike it strongly. Everyone sites different reasons, but if you don’t use it as directed, it can lead to heavier than normal scabbing of the tattoo.

You’ll need to continue applying whatever aftercare you decide to use for generally around 3-5 days, when you’ll notice your new tattoo will start the peeling phase. It resembles a sunburn peeling, except that often the skin flakes that are peeling off will be white or colored like your tattoo; it doesn’t mean your tattoo is falling out. Your tattoo will start to itch but it’s very important not to scratch the area or pull off the flaking skin. If you should cause your tattoo to bleed at this point, which is very easy because the new skin covering your tattoo is still very fragile, you will likely lose the color in that spot. Most tattoo artists can tell by looking at your healed tattoo if light spots were caused by picking and scratching so just don’t do it. Also be careful not to wash the area with anything other than your fingertips, or rubbing a towel over it until all the peeling is finished. Once peeling starts, many people switch from their aftercare product to non-fragranced hypoallergenic lotion. There are many that work well for this purpose, some including Lubriderm, Eucerin, and Aveeno. Other people prefer to use a salve until the peeling is over and then switch to a lotion, but the decision is up to you.

Once the peeling is finished, you’ll notice the skin over the tattoo is shiny, like the skin over a freshly healed scratch or scrape. There may or may not be small areas that appear cloudy or white. Don’t worry too much about these areas for right now, within a month or so the skin over your tattoo will look much like the “virgin” skin next to it. At this point, if you still have areas missing color you can consider going back to get a touch-up done. If everything looks good, great! Applying lotion to it on a regular basis will make the colors look as bright (or as dark) as they can. Wearing sunscreen with at least SPF15 whenever it’s exposed to the sun will greatly extend the life of your tattoo and keep colors true longer. A great way to do this is get a lotion that has SPF15 included. Having it all in one step may help you take better care of your investment.

Please keep in mind that there truly is no one single correct way to do anything, let alone healing a tattoo. Listen to your artist and use your common sense. You know your body better than anyone else, but pay attention to what experience is trying to tell you.

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