Talk to almost anyone with tattoos and they all have different methods for healing that they consider The Right Way™ to do it. This is my personal The Right Way™: it has been thoroughly tested by years of experience, sensitive skin, allergies, and varying circumstances (such as traveling, adverse timing, etc). Remember that a fresh tattoo is an open wound, so expect it to behave like one!
Immediately after getting your tattoo:
- During the first ~36 hours, wash gently and frequently with mild soap (ie. unscented Softsoap, Dial, Satin, etc.) and pat dry with paper towels. This keeps lymph from crusting to your skin. Allowing the lymph to harden on the skin’s surface can cause unsightly scabbing / scarring.
- Keep the tattoo soft and prevent cracking by applying a light, non-greasy moisturizer. You may want to consider using Jojoba oil initially rather than lotion. Lotion can be harsh for an open wound. Jojoba oil is actually not an oil at all, it is an antibacterial, anti-fungal vegan liquid wax that does not contain triglycerides and is similar in chemical composition to human sebum (the natural oils that your skin produces). Therefore, it will not smother a tattoo or clog pores.
- Large tattoos can cause some amount of discomfort. Over-the-counter painkillers (such as Ibuprofen or Aleve) before bed may help some people if discomfort keeps you awake.
Healing and Peeling:
- The area around the tattoo may start to swell, especially if it is large and located on an extremity. This is normal. Sometimes arm/leg tattoo swelling can pinch nerves as well as spread to hands/feet, which can be painful. You may take an anti-inflammatory such as Ibuprofen. You can also elevate and ice the limb, but make sure to wrap your ice pack in a clean paper towel and/or wear long sleeves or pants.
- When the tattoo begins to peel, you can try to keep dry. Keeping it dry prevents flakes from being washed away when they aren’t ready to fall off yet. If you find this too difficult, just make sure you wash extra-gently during the peeling phase.
- Moisturize with a gentle, non-greasy lotion (or Jojoba oil). Curel and Lubriderm are good choices. Lush’s Dream Cream is also a good option. Do not drown, smother, or slather your tattoo (less is more).
- During the heavy peeling and then the “onion-skin” peeling phase that follows, the tattoo can get extremely itchy. If you can stand the ensuing pain, you may lightly slap the tattoo to relieve itching.
Things to avoid or look out for:
- Don’t keep it wrapped up for more than 4-6 hours directly after your tattoo session.
- Don’t go swimming or take a bath. Showers only.
- When washing, never scrub or use a washcloth or loofah. Hands and gentle soap only.
- Do not dry your tattoo with a towel, as they harbor bacteria. Instead, blot dry with clean paper towels.
- Don’t use wound products (ie. Neosporin, Bacitracin, etc.). These types of greasy, antibacterial ointments can be disastrous for new tattoos, causing color loss, blurring, etc.
- Don’t smother the tattoo with wrappings or aftercare products. It needs to breathe to heal properly. (Protecting from the elements with clean, cotton clothing is fine.)
- Don’t use oil-based products on your tattoo. They can smother and clog pores. Jojoba oil (see above) is the exception, as it is not actually an oil.
- Don’t use ‘Extra Strength Healing’ or ‘medicated’ lotions.
- Don’t massage the swelling. It will go down by itself.
- Don’t pick, scratch, squeeze, or peel the tattoo, no matter how tempting it might be!
- Don’t use any topical anti-itch products such as Cortizone, Benadryl, etc.
- If you get tiny, raised bumps (like pimples) on your tattoo during healing, it is most likely due to heavy-handed aftercare or slight irritation from the inks. This is not a normal part of the healing process, but it’s not particularly uncommon either. Remind yourself that “less is more” and throw out those heavy ointments and thick lotions. Use less product and go back to basics and chances are the reaction will resolve itself quickly.
- Reassess the appearance of your tattoo after 3-5 weeks. If some of the color was lost during healing, make arrangements with your tattoo artist for touch-ups.
- If there are large sections of ink missing or the tattoo is blurred / fuzzy, you may want to reassess both your healing methods and your artist’s abilities / skill-level.
- Some inks can cause allergic reactions if they are made with allergen-containing pigments, particularly metal-based inks. This can be avoided by requesting that your artist use only organic and/or vegan inks (a good brand is Eternal). A reaction may appear as late as months after the tattoo’s completion. The allergy commonly manifests as raised, oozing, itchy skin on the affected areas. This is caused by your body attempting to reject the ink and push it out. If you give it time, chances are that it will succeed and the reaction will subside. Patience is key because this rejection may take weeks, months, or even years.
There are definitely things that are specifically bad for tattoos and things that are good for them, but not everyone has the same reaction to the same circumstances. You should always keep in mind that no single method works “best” for every single person. We heal differently, we feel comfortable with different techniques and practices, so take these recommendations into account and find what suits you best and yields the best results.
REMEMBER: If you are having serious, persistent, or spreading skin problems concerning your tattoo, bite the bullet and go see a dermatologist. Don’t just keep slathering different products on it to “see if something eventually works”. Chances are this will make it worse, not better.
Update: IMPORTANT!!! READ BEFORE COMMENTING:
A lot of people have been asking me what to do about their troublesome tattoos. While I do my best to help based on anecdotal experience, I am NOT a medical professional, nor am I a tattoo artist—just an experienced collector! If you are having any kind of serious, very concerning, or uncommon problem, talk to your tattoo artist or a dermatologist! Chances are their advice is going to be more personally informed and indepth than advice you receive from a random stranger on the internet.
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