Right now, it probably kind of feels like someone you know gets a new tattoo once every two weeks. Not only have tattoos become more accepted in the mainstream, but more people that grew up with tattoos as "normal" have turned 18. Because of the combination, it's become inarguably more popular amongst young people to casually get a tattoo. Unfortunately, because it's more popular, some people see their friends getting beautiful tattoos and forget it's a commitment that requires some serious aftercare. One of the most important things to do is wrap your tattoo before swimming, taking a long bath with it, or generally exposing it to the elements. The Instagram pictures that you see are usually hastily taken while replacing the dressing.
Why? Because it's still an open wound. And like any other open wound, you want to take care of it and protect it from the outside world, in particular issues like infection. If you don't put the proper care in, you risk nasty stuff getting into your cut, and therefore into your bloodstream. You also risk it leaking or diluting the ink, and turning an incredible tattoo into a good one. Long story short, you want to take care of it. Still, as anyone who has ever had to bandage an injury knows, taking long showers or trying to swim with a dressing on your skin is...annoying.
How long do you have to wait?
Although it might seem like a long time, tattoos should be allowed to heal for an absolute minimum of 2 weeks before you stop using a dressing when you're in the shower/bath for a long time, or go swimming at all. If you swim, in all likelihood the water will seep in or the bandage will fall off. It's best not to do it at all until you're at 2 weeks. However, if not all flaking and peeling is finished by then, and not all scabs have fallen off, you should still be waiting. Because even then, you're taking a risk getting in a chemically treated pool or bacteria-infested pond or lake, especially if you stay for an extended period of time.
A tattoo isn't actually considered to be fully healed until a new layer of protective skin has grown over it. For that to happen, you're going to have to wait about 3 months. Until then, your tattoo is most vulnerable to all elements: bacteria, sun, chemicals, pollution, etc. If you get a tattoo at the beginning of summer, it's unrealistic to ask you to cover your tattoo for 3 months. You don't have to cover it that long—once you're past 2-3 weeks, be mindful but don't worry too much. However, if you're a regular swimmer or a beach bunny, you might want to wait til the winter months hit to get that big chest piece.
Use a professional tattoo aftercare product (such as Wild Rose's Ink Balm) to help your tattoo heal faster, plus prevent dryness and peeling.
Tips for keeping your tattoo dry
There's a protectant called Tegaderm ($11) that you might consider using on smaller tattoos, but you still run a risk. Plenty of people have found that using plastic wrap taped with waterproof bandages does the trick. It all depends on how long you intend on staying in the water and how big the tattoo is.
Once you get out of the water, make sure you immediately clean your tattoo thoroughly with a tattoo-safe soap. Don't think you need to put on ointment; it'll only damage your tattoo in the long run. Ultimately, if you can hold out from swimming for the full 3-month period, you'll be doing your tattoo and yourself a great service, but don't sacrifice a vacation for the sake of a few-month-old tattoo.