The world of tattooing is an intricate realm. What most people don’t realize is that it’s a space where art, health, body strength, technique, etching, shading, and beauty are all on a level playing field. Tattoos can be a daily reminder for something meaningful you hold dear, commemorate a life-changing event, or simply serve as a form of self-expression. In any sense, if you want your tattoo to last, before-after care is crucial—and not just in terms of treating the tattoo itself. “Internal preparation is just as important as external aftercare,” says Anka Lavriv, tattoo artist and co-owner of Black Iris Tattoo. “Keep in mind that a tattoo is an invasive cosmetic procedure and it does take a strain on your immune system. Your immune and lymphatic system will be working hard on healing a fresh tattoo, so partying and anything excessive is definitely not recommended.” In other words: take it easy. But just about how lightly should you tread? And since this is all the information you should consider before even walking into a tattoo parlor, what should you do after your appointment?
Below, we spoke to two of our favorite tattoo experts to get their take on how to properly take care of a tattoo.
Clean Your Hands before Touching Your Tattoo
Most tattoo artists have their own personal set of aftercare instructions. But one piece of advice they all have in common is to touch your tattoo with clean hands only. “The most important step would be to clean your hands before you clean your tattoos,” says Tuki Carter, rapper and tattoo artist to Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, and Gucci Mane. “[I recommend that] you listen to the verbal directions [from your tattooer] first, then refer to the written directions after.” Also, take into consideration that washing your hands shouldn’t be a quick three-second rinse. With soap, rub your palms together for as long as it takes to recite a full alphabet (or for whatever jingle lasts 20 seconds or more).
Remove the Bandage and Wash with Antibacterial Soap Only
The original bandage your tattoo artist employs to wrap you up post-ink session can be removed within two to three hours after completion, or however long your tattoo artist recommends. Do not re-bandage. The plasma from the original tattoo may surface after the first couple of hours, and then it’s time to clean the art and allow it to breathe.
To cleanse the tattoo, use anti-bacterial soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s Baby Unscented Pure-Castile Liquid Soap ($11), or any unscented antibacterial liquid. Refrain from using any type of cloth to cleanse the tattoo because it will exfoliate the area—which, remember, is a wound. Next, rinse with warm-to-mild temperature water and pat the area dry with a towel. Allow it to sit for at least 10 minutes before proceeding.
Carter says to always use an ointment recommended by the artist who gave you the tattoo. “Every artist has their own aftercare ointment—Shea butter, artificial skin, lotions, etc.,” he explains. “Make sure you don’t over-medicate the tattoo by applying too much ointment, because it could clog the pores and create a rash that would definitely disturb the healing process.” Some tattoo blogs even suggest that it is okay to leave the area free of ointment after the first cleansing, or only applying a very thin layer.
Shea butter is a plant lipid that comes from African shea tree nuts and is rich in fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins. It's used to help moisturize, nourish, and soothe the skin.
“I always recommend using Aquaphor ($7) for the first two to three days of healing,” says Anka. “It delivers the right amount of moisturization without feeling heavy or suffocating. It also minimizes peeling and flaking." One thing to note: Aquaphor does contain petroleum, so if you're looking for vegan alternatives she recommends Hustle Butter ($20), a tattooing glide made of Shea, mango and aloe butter, with coconut and vitamin e oils; it’s great for using before, during, and after the healing process. Once your tattoo starts healing, you can switch to unscented lotions, such as the ones from Aveeno, Lubriderm, Eucerin, or dabble in natural shea body butter to moisturize until your masterpiece is fully healed.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin and an oil often found in anti-oxidant blend topicals or moisturizers. It also help soothe the skin and protects the lipid barrier.
Allow It to Breathe
During the first three to four days post-tattoo, you'll repeat the process of washing your tattoo about two to five times a day, then following with a light layer of ointment. Carter explains that during the healing process, a good amount of air is great for the ink, so it’s critical to make sure the skin can breathe. On the first night, it’s normal to wrap the area in plastic wrap so it doesn’t stick to your bedding, but after that, make sure the design is free from coverage and getting ventilation.
Let It Heal
The time it takes for your tattoo to fully heal depends on the size and execution of the tattoo, but Carter says it should be around six weeks. (He notes that those with immune disorders might need to consult a physician or dermatologist before getting a tattoo.) He also says that tattoos with colored ink take longer to heal than non-colored tattoos, especially if it’s large in size or on the inside of a joint. “The bending can ‘crack’ the healing tattoo and cause a scab, which can delay the healing process,” he says.
Etched tattoos and link work cause minimal trauma to the skin, so they tend to heal faster. On the third or fourth day, the art will begin to peel, which may be uncomfortable or itchy—but refrain from picking and scratching the design. The area will still be hypersensitive even after the peeling stage, so it’s recommended to keep up with your moisturizing routine. Continue to use unscented soap and lotion without scent, dye, and perfume. No shaving.
Avoid Prolonged Sun Exposure
As time goes on, it’s natural for a tattoo to go through changes, which include fading. “According to new research, tattoo ink stays suspended in the dermis and is held there by a certain type of white blood cell called macrophage” explains Anka. A fibroblast is another type of cell known to absorb ink particles, so together, the macrophage and fibroblast bind enough ink particles for the tattoo image to actually stay put and appear on your skin. These cells hang around for years and eventually when they die, the ink molecules get reabsorbed by a new macrophage. Your tattoo becomes part of your organism, which involves shedding and change. And just like it’s important to keep your actual epidermis safe from harsh chemicals and sun exposure, you’ll need to care for your tattoo by always make sure you wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 35. Remember: prolonged sun exposure is damaging to your art. Resist tanning to keep your tattoo looking fresh.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them.
Wilson WT, O'Boyle M, Leach WJ. Unusual complication of a tattoo in an immunosuppressed patient. BMJ Case Rep. 2018;2018:bcr2018224968. doi:10.1136/bcr-2018-224968
Baranska A, Shawket A, Jouve M, et al. Unveiling skin macrophage dynamics explains both tattoo persistence and strenuous removal. J Exp Med. 2018;215(4):1115-1133. doi:10.1084/jem.20171608
Cleveland Clinic. What to expect when you get a tattoo. Updated October 2, 2020.