Fairly often, particularly during certain times of the year, people notice that their tattoos are becoming raised and itchy. Sufferers of this condition usually describe it as being occasional rather than consistent, although it could be either. Depending on what it is, the cause can also range in severity from annoying to painful, and from harmless to dangerous.
But in order to know whether it's just a mild reaction to your environment or something more, you have to locate the cause. Pinpointing the actual cause for something like a rash, though, can be difficult. Usually it's one, seemingly innocuous thing, but it could be a combination of factors or even an illness you're not aware of. You have to pay attention to your symptoms as much as the possible causes.
Meet the Expert
Shari Sperling is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Sperling Dermatology. She specializes in medical, cosmetic, laser, and surgical dermatology for adults and children.
“You first must rule out if it’s allergy or an infection. Allergy can be due to different colored pigment in tattoos.”
Allergic reactions to the tattoo ink used are usually the first thing that comes to the mind of someone suffering from an itchy tattoo, but it's probably the least likely thing to be the issue. However, allergic reactions to ink can and do happen sometimes—particularly with red and yellow, or colors that contain red or yellow as a base. It can also just happen from the use of cheap ink. An allergic reaction doesn't necessarily happen immediately—it can appear a week after receiving a tattoo, or years down the road. Even minor changes in the body can cause adverse reactions to things that once were totally benign. An ink allergy will be itchy, raised only in spots of the particular color, and is more likely to be a constant irritation rather than one that comes and goes. Topical ointments made for allergic reactions may help to relieve mild irritation, while a prescription drug or even tattoo removal may even be required for more serious cases.
For any mild form of itch, a Hydrocortisone 1% cream is going to be your best bet in terms of temporary relief. If you can't figure out the cause of your allergy and you're pretty sure it is an allergy, you should go to a doctor immediately. But if it's just minor irritation, hydrocortisone can be picked up at pretty much any drugstore.
The weather is the most likely culprit when it comes to occasional, but consistent tattoo irritation. Some people notice that for them, it only happens in the summertime. When temperatures and humidity rise, it can make your tattoo swell slightly. This swelling causes a slight stretching of the skin, which also results in an itch. A well-healed tattoo isn’t likely to be damaged by scratching, but it’s still best to try to avoid it.
Alleviate tattoo irritation temporarily by using a topical anti-itch cream, ice, or cool water.
For others, it's just the opposite: the cold winter months and subsequent dry skin causes itchy, rashy tattoos. Dry skin by itself can cause rashes, so there's a chance it could be a total coincidence if one appears over a healed tattoo. But if the pigment under the skin is exposed to extreme cold, it might be reacting to the temperature change. Keeping your skin moist with lotion, and avoiding extreme ups and downs in temperature might help with this problem.
Another thing that can irritate your tattoo a bit is generally irritated skin, so you're going to want to avoid getting sunburnt on places you have body art. This is particularly important for fresh ink, which has a significantly higher chance of becoming damaged from the sun. Make sure you're using a sunscreen with a moisturizing component so you don't have to worry about exposed skin drying out or getting burnt.
"Infections need to be ruled out—sometimes antibiotics are needed to treat [them]," Dr. Sperling shares. She also notes that you should "Make sure to get evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist."
NYC dermatologist Dr. Nava Greenfield agrees that your best bet is not to self-diagnose: "Some factors a dermatologist will look at are where in the ratio are the raised areas located? Are they only in one color of the tattoo or multiple colors? Did it occur shortly after the tattoo was placed or years later? Are the bumps soft or hard? Your doctor can evaluate the lesion and determine if a biopsy is needed for diagnostic purposes."
What to do if you have an infection? Listen to your doctor, and take the full course of antibiotics.
Changes inside your body can affect you on the outside, too. A rise in blood pressure, increased adrenaline, a change in body temperature—all of these things might affect your tattoo. If you notice your tattoo is itchy and uncomfortable, think about what has changed in your routine recently and you might find a connection. Usually stopping this activity, at least for a period of time, will let the tattoo heal. However, it might take a few days to figure out exactly what it is you need to stop doing or using. Avoid physical activities and things like hot showers until you know those aren't the triggers.
Over the course of your life, you may discover that you have a skin condition you weren't previously aware of. Unfortunately, your tattoo may be particularly sensitive to it. A skin condition might be as mild as just dry skin or as severe as eczema, the difference being the latter isn’t going to surface just because of a tattoo. But if you believe you have some kind of condition, a quick visit to a dermatologist should help to relieve any body itching, including your tattoo.
Kiehl's Creme de Corps might not be a prescription-strength cream, but it is loved by many for how soft it leaves skin. If you think your issue might just be dry skin, getting your hands on a bottle of this is a good option.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Tattoos: 7 unexpected skin reactions and what to do about them.
Bassi A, Campolmi P, Cannarozzo G, et al. Tattoo-associated skin reaction: the importance of an early diagnosis and proper treatment. Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:354608. doi:10.1155/2014/354608
Cleveland Clinic. Dry skin. Updated May 13, 2020.