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. Here at Byrdie HQ, we love a fresh tattoo just as much as the next person, but we know that proper tattoo aftercare is crucial, if you want your new ink to last. Whether it's your first or your 20th, we've rounded up the best short- and long-term tips that'll help keep your tattoo care game in tip-top shape—from how to clean it to signs it's time to visit your doctor.
Below, we spoke to two experts on how to take care of a tattoo.
Meet the Expert
Why Is Tattoo Aftercare Important?
According to Lavriv, tattooing puts a strain on your immune system, and internal preparation is just as important as external aftercare. “A tattoo is an invasive cosmetic procedure, and your immune and lymphatic system will be working hard on healing a fresh tattoo, so partying and anything excessive is not recommended," she says. In other words: take it easy.
Short-Term Aftercare Tips
Touch It With Clean Hands Only
Most tattoo artists have their own 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 Carter. “[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 the 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 antibacterial soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Liquid Soap ($17) or any unscented antibacterial liquid. Avoid 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, as this could clog the pores and create a rash that would definitely disturb the healing process.” Some tattoo blogs even suggest that it's A-okay to leave the area free of ointment after the first cleansing or only applying a very thin layer.
“I always recommend using Aquaphor ($4) for the first two to three days of healing,” says Lavriv. “It delivers the right amount of moisture without feeling heavy or suffocating, and 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 Deluxe Luxury Tattoo Care & Maintenance Cream ($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 Eucerin Original Healing Lotion ($9), or dabble in natural shea body butter to moisturize until your masterpiece is fully healed.
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 a good amount of air is great for the ink during the healing process, 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.
Tight-fitted clothing can rub up against your new tattoo. Instead, opt for loose cotton fabrics to let the area breathe.
Long-Term Aftercare Tips
Don't Pick or Itch It
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 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, including 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 a macrophage,” explains Lavriv. 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 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 skin, and, of course, your art. Resist tanning to keep your tattoo looking fresh.
When to See Your Doctor
Tattoo infections are rare, but it still helps to know what signs to look out for. If you feel feverish, experience oozing or scabbing at the tattoo site, or have swelling that lasts more than one week; it's time to pay a visit to your doctor. Also, if you feel hard, raised tissue in the tattooed area, or see red lesions, seek help from your doctor.
The Final Takeaway
Tattoos require a little TLC post-procedure, but once healed, there are only a few things you'll need to keep on top of your mind (avoiding prolonged sun exposure, itching, and shaving being a few of them). You'll know your tattoo is on the right path to healing when the scabs diminish and the skin on the tattoo surface is an even texture as the rest of your skin. And remember, when in doubt, visit your doctor to ensure your new ink is healing properly.
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.