tattoo aftercare in-depth
success is in the details
Some tattoo collectors are fortunate to have very forgiving skin, and their tattoos heal with minimal attention to aftercare. Others are less fortunate, and their new tattoo will require constant monitoring and attention to insure a proper healing process. If you want to know everything there is to know about tattoo aftercare, and everything you can possibly do to insure a good healing process, this is the page for you.
Your tattoo is finished, the skin is very raw, and may be bleeding or oozing blood plasma. There may also be swelling, especially if you have very sensitive skin, or your tattoo is located below the waist where blood pressure is higher. The bandage that you wear out of the tattoo studio serves to protect the new tattoo from accumulating contaminates such as dust, pet dander, or coming into contact with surfaces which may have contaminates and germs on them such as car-seats, children’s hands, pets, etc, as well as prevent the blood plasma from drying out and hardening into scabs. The plasma that seeps out of the tattoo and accumulates beneath the bandage may have trace amounts of tattoo pigment in it, discoloring the plasma, so it is quite common to see a liquid the same color or colors as the recent tattoo work accumulate in the creases in the bandage. This liquid is your own blood plasma, and is LOADED with white blood cells from your own body which fight off infection and trigger your bodies immune response and healing, so it is actually very beneficial to allow the tattoo to “marinate” in your bodes own juices for a period of time.
Immediately after the tattoo is finished, it is very important to rest. ESPECIALLY IF YOUR TATTOO IS LOCATED BELOW THE WAIST! The body often responds to a new tattoo in a very similar way as it does to a sprain, and should, whenever possible, be treated similarly to a sprain. ICE- ELEVATION- ADVIL… Try laying down for a few hours, elevate the tattoo above your heart (if possible), take an anti-inflammatory such as Advil, cover the tattoo bandage with something like a CLEAN t-shirt or hand towel, and apply an ice-pack. You will find this to be extremely soothing, and it can significantly reduce the healing time and discomfort. NEVER APPLY ICE-PACK DIRECTLY TO THE BANDAGE without a cloth burier between the ice-pack and the skin, this can cause frost-bite on the skin!
The bandage should be somewhat close fitting, but not tight. If your tattoo swells to such an extent that the bandage becomes very tight on the tattoo, it is important to take steps to reduce the swelling, and if necessary the bandage should be removed and replaced with a looser bandage. It is important to understand that the lower extremities are especially vulnerable to swelling, so activities like walking, running, standing, and sitting will likely cause swelling and discomfort. If you have a tattoo on your calf, for example, the best thing you can do for it is to stay off your feet and elevate the leg as much and as often as possible. If the swelling gets out of hand, it can cause micro-tears in the already traumatized tissue which can push the tissue past the point of tolerance resulting in heavy scabbing and overall poor healing. If you notice swelling in your new tattoo, it is VERY IMPORTANT that you stop what you are doing and address it BEFORE it gets worse. Many people have found that leaving the bandage in place over night while you sleep is very helpful. If the tattoo is NOT bandaged, and you sleep in one position for very long while the tattoo is oozing, the plasma can actually bond to the bed-sheets and harden while you sleep, resulting in waking up “stuck” to your sheets or pajamas. If you EVER find that your tattoo has “stuck” to any fabric, it is very important that you do not just rip it loose, but get in the shower WITH the bonded fabric, and gently soak the fabric and the tattoo with warm water until it “lets go” easily. Ripping it free will certainly cause pain, and re-open the tattoo, resulting in heavy scabbing and almost certainly a certain amount of color loss and scar tissue.
BANDAGE REMOVAL AND WASHING:
*aftercare recommendations for Tegaderm are specific, and may vary from details listed below. For Tegaderm specific instructions click HERE.
Do not remove the bandage until you are prepared to wash the tattoo properly. Unless your tattoo is on your hand or wrist, “properly” washing your tattoo will require that you get in the shower. Prepare your bathing area for the washing of the tattoo by following these guidelines:
*Ensure your bathroom is CLEAN
* Get a FRESHLY WASHED towel ready for drying.
*Have a mild, fragrance free, non-exfoliating BAR SOAP ready for cleaning the tattoo. (Liquid soaps often have harsh chemicals that will irritate your tattoo)
When you are ready to bathe, first start the water flow- you want the water to be VERY WARM. By very warm I mean HOT, but not scalding. Basically as hot as you might like it in a normal hot shower. Remove all garments, next thoroughly wash your HANDS, then and only then remove the bandage. This is normally accomplished most easily by breaking the tape, and then tearing away the bandage in such a way as to NOT apply pressure to the fresh tattoo. Dispose of the bandage and enter the shower. Present the tattoo indirectly to the water-flow. Initially there will probably be mild stinging. As the sensitivity passes, present the tattoo directly to the water-flow. Allow the tattoo to “soak” for a few moments. Remove the tattoo from the water-flow. Take up the BAR SOAP, and work up a THICK lather between your hands, transfer the lather by hand to the tattoo, and gently begin washing the tattoo with a circular “buffing” motion using VERY gentle pressure. NEVER “scrub”, or “scratch” your tattoo while washing it! Rinse the tattoo by presenting it directly to the water-flow. While rinsing the tattoo, continue to rub the tattoo in a circular motion with your finger tips to assist the cleansing using the LIGHTEST, GENTLEST touch possible. Typically the tattoo will still feel “slimy” or “slick” after the first washing. This is due to the blood plasma on the surface of the new tattoo which was NOT washed away in the previous washing. Left in place, this plasma will harden and form scabs, so it MUST be removed- GENTLY!!! Repeat the washing method stated above as many times as required until you feel the tattoo rinse clean and all areas that felt “slippery” have been washed away. Once the tattoo is thoroughly clean, turn the water to 100% cold and present the tattoo indirectly to the water-flow. The cold water may be a bit shocking, but it will shrink the pores in your skin, assisting the skin in its effort to close the wound and stop the oozing of blood plasma.
Most people find that air-drying the tattoo is preferable, however you may wish to dry it. If you DO decide to dry off the tattoo, use a CLEAN towel, or a clean PAPER towel to gently “pat” the tattoo dry. NEVER WIPE A FRESH TATTOO DRY!
Many people find it very soothing to “ice” a tattoo after washing, before drying for the first day or two. If you want to take this step, get an ice cube (the larger ones are easier to handle), run the ice-cube under tap water for a mount to remove the frosted, course outer layer of ice, then apply the wet ice-cube directly to the tattoo in a constant circular motion, with no added pressure, being careful to avoid pressing any coarse edges of the ice onto the skin. This only takes a few moments, and should not be a prolonged application, but simply a quick way to sooth the skin and close the pores. Applying ice directly to the tattoo could frost-bite the skin if left in one place too long so be conservative and keep it moving!
On the first few days after getting tattooed, try to wash the new work at a least TWO TIMES DAILY. In addition, wash the tattoo if you find blood plasma beading on the surface, and anytime it comes into contact with possible contaminates, such as pets, children’s hands, dust-filled breezes, cloth upholstery, etc.
Wash the tattoo at a minimum of once per day until the tattoo is completely healed.
*(Bathtubs can be perfectly suitable, perhaps even superior in the cleaning of your new tattoo, IF and ONLY IF the tub is SPOTLESSLY CLEAN! Bathing in a tub that is dusty, and/or soap-scum lined is asking for trouble. NEVER get into a bathtub with a new tattoo before thoroughly cleaning and rinsing the tub beforehand.) If you bathe in a tub, I highly recommend that after your bath you RINSE the tattoo in the shower for optimal cleaning.
The most common mistake people tend to make in caring for their tattoos is to OVER-moisturize the skin.. Over-moisturization leaves a film of moisturizer on the surface of the tattoo and will encourage the skin to continue oozing blood plasma, which will harden into thick scabs if left in place. The film of moisturizer also acts as a sticky surface that will attract and hold any contaminates the tattoo is exposed to which may be dust and pollen floating in the air, pet dander, or germs from brushing up against surfaces. If you moisturize your tattoo, don’t over do it. A good rule is to NEVER wear more moisturizer on your tattoo than you would wear on your face. It should NEVER look greasy, shiny, or wet.
The second most common mistake is mindlessly and needlessly touching your tattoo. NEVER touch a fresh tattoo unless you NEED to, and NEVER touch a fresh tattoo without first THOROUGHLY WASHING YOUR HANDS!
If your tattoo is comfortable, leave it dry. A dry tattoo will close itself off and stop oozing. You will know when your tattoo needs to be moisturized if it feels “tight”, if it is noticeably sore even without touching it, or if it itches a lot.
When you apply moisturizer, use the product recommended by your tattoo artist until the tattoo peels.
ALWASY WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE MOISTURIZING! Apply a TINY amount of moisturizer to the tattoo and gently rub it into the skin until it has been COMPLETELY absorbed. Remove any excess when you are finished, to insure that the tattoo is not greasy feeling, or shiny looking. Avoid using after-care product on the skin surrounding the tattoo as much as possible. Many products are quite thick, and can easily clog the pores of your un-tattooed skin resulting in pimples, and minor rashes.
When the tattoo is well into the peeling phase, switch from the after-care product to a mild, fragrance free, moisturizing lotion and apply as much as the skin will drink up, as many times a day as it dries out. See “peeling phase” below…
PROGRESS TOWARD PEELING:
Your tattoo will begin to dry out over the first few days, and develop a dry, pale, crackled looking surface. Hopefully this will be virtually free of any texture or especially rough, tender areas and have a uniform “dullness” to it. This is the “scab” layer forming, and is a sign that the tattoo is properly drying out and healing itself. Some very mild tenderness, redness, swelling, itching, tingling, is normal, however none of these should be severe.
Some moderate to severe itching is common. If your tattoo itches, DO NOT SCRATCH it, and do not vigorously rub it!!! You may “slap” your tattoo, to temporarily relieve the itching, or take Benadryl by mouth to help it stop itching more permanently. Some people with highly sensitive skin experience more itching, swelling, and redness than most. If you are someone with extremely sensitive skin you may wish to take Benadryl by mouth for a day or two prior to your tattoo appointment and for several days after.
Contact your tattoo artist IMMEDIATELY if any of the following symptoms arise:
*Dark redness radiating out from under the tattoo or traveling in a pattern that resembles veins or lightning.
*”sinking” areas that may or may not be filled with a “goo” or puss.
*thick hard scabs
*deep cracks, pits, or any areas that bleed red blood”
*prolonged oozing of blood plasma with or without color
*rashes or bumps in the surrounding tissue
*anything that has you feeling concerned or that you are unsure about.
*** Failure to contact your tattoo artist at the first sign of any difficulty healing your tattoo may result in a dramatically prolonged and unnecessarily painful healing experience, and could be considered neglectful and result in the forfeiture of having your touch-ups performed free of charge. Don’t risk it! If you’re concerned, CONTACT YOUR ARTIST IMMEDIATELY!***
The tattoo may develop thicker scabbing as the days pass, and it may develop a “lumpy” texture resembling “corn-flakes”… as long as they are not cracking and bleeding this is acceptable. Soon this layer will begin to fracture and flake off. The flakes may or may not be the same color as the underlying tattoo.
NEVER PICK THE SCABS!!!
Picking or over zealously “rubbing” to remove scabs before they fall off on their own WILL result in color loss from your tattoo. There are delicate layers of biology involved in the scabs, filled with tattoo pigment, and the scab is attempting to lay down as many of these layers as possible for your body to keep. If you pull a scab off prematurely you will be traumatizing the area, removing tattoo ink that MAY have stayed in your tattoo, and possibly bringing blood to the surface which will only result in a NEW scab and possibly scar tissue.
Once your tattoo begins to slough off the scabs, you will see your new tattoo below, and it may appear “shiny”, almost as if it were covered in saran-wrap. This is a normal appearance for freshly healed skin,. The new skin is more delicate than your un-tattooed skin, so be careful not to scratch or abrade it. Your skin may wrinkle when compressed in a way that seems strange to you, and may appear almost to be made of plastic-wrap. In time your skin will begin normal exfoliation on its own and regain its normal sheen and elasticity, this takes anywhere from 2 to 6 months. You can help this process along by regular moisturizing and healthy diet.
It is common advice to avoid swimming altogether while healing a tattoo. Chlorinated water should be avoided because of the harsh chemicals present. Natural bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and springs are thought to pose risks due to the bacteria and microorganisms which may be present.
The main risk associated with swimming isn’t actually either of these concerns. The two main concerns are with the likelihood of SUN exposure associated with swimming, and the possibility of prolonged submersion in water, or “soaking”. While your tattoo is scabbing, prolonged exposure to submersion in water will cause the scabs to absorb water and swell, causing them to fall off before they are supposed to and result in loss of color in your tattoo similarly to picking them off by hand. If you want to play it safe, you will avoid swimming altogether until your tattoo has completely peeled. If you are going to disregard this advice, the next best thing you can do is to avoid direct sun exposure. NEVER put sunblock on a healing tattoo, instead carry an extra t-shirt, or sarong, etc. and use it to cover the tattoo if you are going to be in the sunlight for more than a few minutes. You have never experienced sunburn, until you’ve sunburned a healing tattoo. And secondly, if you MUST swim, get in, plash around and have fun, and get out, but don’t lay around in hot-tubs or soaking in the spring with your new tattoo submerged under the water for prolonged periods of time.
It’s wise to avoid exposing your new tattoo to direct sunlight for as long, and as much as possible. If you are going to be in the sun, stand so as to place your tattoo in your own shadow, seek a shady spot to hang out, or wear clothing that covers the tattoo and keeps it shaded. A little vitamin D is good for the skin, but it can get plenty for a healing tattoo through whatever you might be wearing over it. Once your tattoo is fully healed, moderate sun exposure can help the skin to return to normal, but never under any circumstances should you TAN your tattoo. For more on this topic see “longterm care and maintenance” below.